Published on November 13, 2020 by Leighton Doores  
Lisa Lawrenz and Julie Emory Johnson

The educational community is experiencing a dramatic shift as teacher support needs have increased more than ever. From assistance adopting new technology and the expanding virtual landscape due to COVID-19 to the need for engaging professional development, innovative thinking and problem-solving are crucial.

Samford University’s Orlean Beeson School of Education graduate students Lisa Lawrenz and Julie Emory-Johnson are bridging the gap for teachers through their new, Birmingham-based educational consulting company Inside Voices.

Lawrenz and Emory-Johnson believe teachers are at the center of providing opportunity and equity for students. Through Inside Voices, they want to bring joy back into the workplace for teachers by giving them the support they need. This includes providing opportunities for autonomy and professional engagement while also addressing social and emotional needs and the need for collective agency within their own profession. They believe it is imperative that teachers feel empowered to have a seat at the table and join the conversation with decision-makers.

“I think sometimes teachers don’t feel like there’s a place for them at the table and we want them to feel confident and informed and give them the space to have dialogue with one another,” said Emory-Johnson. “We want to build their confidence to the point where they can insert themselves in the conversation that they should have possibly always been leading.”

Since COVID-19 began, Lawrenz and Emory-Johnson have been astounded by the number of teachers participating in educator forums on Facebook. Teachers are desperately trying to support each other as they adapt to new technology and changing expectations while dealing with crises of their own. As a new conversation around technology and innovation in education is developing, the language is also changing around professional development.

“Districts and schools are starting to recognize that job-embedded professional development and the opportunity for teachers to be in dialogue with other professionals who can help coach them is much more effective than the old 'sit-and-get' formula where you go to a workshop away from campus and listen for eight to 10 hours to people who speak at you,” said Lawrenz.

Lawrenz is currently completing her educational specialist degree and Emory-Johnson is a candidate in the doctoral program. Both credit Samford for allowing their thinking about educational systems and processes to flourish.

“Inside Voices has definitely been inspired by some of our experiences at Samford where we’ve had the opportunity to hear other educators around the state,” said Lawrenz. “The opportunity to participate in learning experiences with other educators and have that dialogue is so powerful.”

Before Lawrenz and Emory-Johnson officially launched Inside Voices on Dec. 1 and already had their first client, Educate LLC, and were in preliminary conversations with schools and organizations throughout the Southeast.

“We defined who the perfect client would be and then immediately found them,” said Emory-Johnson. “The beauty of that is Educate represents everything that we really want to be in the way that they think about educators, culture, equity and access.”

Educate, based in New York, helps teachers and schools transform learning through technology and empowers them to break down systemic barriers of inequity. Lawrenz and Emory-Johnson knew Educate was a perfect match because of its emphasis on live workshops and webinars that are fully relationship-based, interactive and geared to adult learners. Rather than a one-day training, the school-wide transformational coaching occurs over the course of six to 12 weeks.

Lawrenz and Emory-Johnson are looking forward to expanding their work with Educate in the southeast, and growing Inside Voices organically. They hope to see it become a space where teachers can find a supportive community outside the four walls of their school.

“We hope Inside Voices can be a place where educators can mentor one another professionally, from new teachers coming into the profession to teachers who have retired and want to continue to share their experience and support the growth and outcomes for students,” said Lawrenz. “We really believe in the opportunity for growth and change in schools when everyone’s voice is heard.”

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.