Leah Lechleiter-Luke has served Mauston High School students for years as a Spanish and English teacher. Last year, she served the interests of the state's students as the 2009-10 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year.

Now, she will have the opportunity to serve a nation of students.

Luke was selected as one of 16 national Teaching Ambassador Fellows for the 2011-12 school year by the U.S. Department of Education.

The program, which drew nearly 750 applicants this year, allows teachers to learn about national education policy issues and to contribute their expertise to those discussions.

Participants share the information with others in their professional networks.

According to Luke, the program is a step in a logical direction for the national dialogue on public education.

"The goal of the program is to improve education for students by involving teachers in national education policy," she said. "Think about that for a second. The Department of [Education] in Washington, D.C. wants input from regular classroom teachers like me. They understand the dynamics of including educators in the conversation."

Luke said she was introduced to the program as Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, and decided to apply when the program began soliciting applications last November.

According to Luke, the preparation and interview process was an education in and of itself.

"I did a lot of reading about current [education] policy, especially of the Blueprint for ESEA (No Child Left Behind) in preparation for the interview," she said. "Even if my Fellowship journey had ended at the interview phase, it would have been quite an honor to have made it that far."

Having been selected as one of 16 national fellows, Luke hopes to gain a better understanding of how education policy comes into being and give policymakers a better understanding of its implications on classroom teachers.

"I hope to be a conduit, a pipeline, for two-way dialogue whenever possible," she said. "The greater the collaboration, the greater the benefit to all of our students."

A large part of such collaboration, according to Luke, will be collecting feedback from teachers and bringing their concerns to D.C. with her.

"My job this year will involve collecting feedback from educators and educational stakeholders locally, regionally and nationally about educational policy and then sharing it with Department of Education staff," she said. "It's a truly unique opportunity to be able to share educators' thoughts with folks who make the policies that shape our schools."

While her appointment to the program was only officially announced by the state Department of Public Instruction Aug. 1, she has already participated in a four-day conference in D.C. where she met the other fellows in both the national and D.C. programs. According to Luke, the experience already has here excited to take on her new, national role.

"I left D.C. feeling pretty optimistic about current initiatives," she said. "We know what's right for kids and we're going to do it - especially with the changes being proposed to No Child Left Behind."

Luke said the program will require about 10 to 15 hours a month and will include some opportunities to attend regional and national conferences.

Despite rubbing shoulders with national education officials and travelling the country as both Teacher of the Year and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, Luke is in no hurry to join their ranks permanently.

"The best part of my day is still when I am with my students in the classroom," she said.

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