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Q&A: Carroll County teacher Rachel McCusker takes role on state education board

Rachel McCusker
Rachel McCusker (Courtesy Photo)

For the first time, the Maryland State Department of Education will include a teacher member on the board, and a Carroll County teacher, Rachel McCusker, was elected to serve in the role.

More than 8,200 certified teachers in Maryland voted in the election for the teacher member. The State Board also created a new parent role, increasing their membership from 12 to 14.

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McCusker, a Linton Springs Elementary School music instructor, has taught in Carroll County since 1994. She was Carroll County’s Teacher of the Year in 2015. “This has been my teaching home,” she said of CCPS.

She will serve on the state board for two years and six months.

The Times caught up with McCusker to ask about her experience in leadership and being the first to fill the role.

Q: Do you think that adding this new position was a good step that the legislature made? Will it be good for the [state board of education]?

A: It seems to me that if you’re going to be making policy law, making decisions that govern the day to day education of almost 900,000 kids, that the input of at least one professional who is currently in the practice, somebody who can be the voice of what it’s actually looking like on the ground, in practice, makes sense.

When you’re having a medical procedure or you’re having a dental procedure, you go to a professional for that plan of care. We’re talking about the educational plans and daily lives of a lot of kids. And right now there isn’t a practicing teacher to give input on what things look like, what it looks like kids need across the state. So I think it’s imperative to get that voice. I think it’s a little crazy that we’ve never had it before. But I know at the same time that this is a really new thing, that this is not the norm, and that we’re stepping outside of the norm. But I think it’s a really good step to at least making sure we hear about how these policies do and can affect students across the state.

Q: Is that one of the groups that you’re really looking to present, the student voice?

A: Well, I’m the teacher voice, but with the teacher voice comes the needs of students. What governs the day-to-day lives of teachers is what the needs of students are. All of our decision making is based upon what is best for students. And so, when I bring teacher voice, teacher voice is driven by student need.

Q: Is this role one where you kind of go in knowing exactly what your duties will be? Or do you help to shape what the role looks like since you’re the first one?

A: I think I’m to a point shaping, but at the same time the duties of a member of the State Board of Education are clearly outlined ... so the basic set of duties is outlined for me. I’m setting the standard, I believe, for the diligence at which the practicing teacher executes those duties, setting the standard for making sure that those duties are executed in a spirit of collaboration and wanting to make sure that we’re student-centered and focused on the mission of a world class education for every kid.

While my duties are outlined for me, the way that I execute them is up to me, and will be shaped by how I do it. And I think it’s important for me as the first to hold myself to a very high standard as I execute duties, and make sure that I get voices from across the state, so that the information that I give ... and my contribution on the board is not just from my little piece of the world, but is representative of what we’re seeing in different parts of the state.

Q: Was it meaningful to you that part of the process was voting by other teachers?

A: Very much so. It is extremely gratifying to know that there are people within your professional peer group that believe in you to the point of saying "Yes, we’ll let you be our voice. That’s humbling. It’s very humbling.

Q: Are there some roles you’ve held in the past that you think might be really valuable for experience?

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A: I’ve been holding leadership roles on the school, county and recently at the state level, in collaborative settings. ... I’ve been a member of the county’s bargaining team, so I’ve been in a position of having to get collaborative win-win in a diplomatic way. I have been involved in state and national advocacy centered around standardized testing and try to try to minimize the amount of time spent on standardized testing.

And even on the national level, when [the Every Student Succeeds Act] was being re-voted on ... I was in Washington on Capitol Hill talking about trying to minimize the amount that standardized testing was counting towards how we were rating schools at that time, and trying to say, "It’s not just that snapshot test that rates the school, that it’s all of these factors in trying to get a more holistic approach to rating schools.

Really, my skill is in the collaborative win-win. My willingness and my past in working with groups and taking input from multiple stakeholders in order to make educational decisions on every level, school, county state, is going to serve me a great deal in in the state board.

I keep up on educational issues. And I really have a kind of global view of education from a systemic viewpoint. I’m also a parent and a grandparent. I’ve raised several children, two still in school, and they’ve all graduated from public schools. Three of them have also had private school experiences. So my experiences as a parent vary widely.

Q: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

A: With the Kirwan Commission coming up, with looking at hiring a new [state] superintendent, I think it’s going to be a very full year with a very full agenda. And I’m really looking forward to finding ways to work collaboratively to make sure that the decisions we make at that board are student-centered and focused on making sure every kid in the state is receiving the best we can give them.

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