Welcome to SmartBrief Education’s original content series about the unique stories of teacherpreneurs. These are the innovative individuals confronting challenges, creating solutions and challenging the traditional definition of “educator.”
For teachers, the politics surrounding public education sometimes makes it feel more like 1773 than 2015. We can feel marginalized by a system that seems to subject our profession to “test”-ation without adequate representation. And while educators might dream about dumping standardized tests and NCLB paperwork into the Boston harbor, there are far better ways we can advocate for change, like getting involved in productive, meaningful conversations with policymakers.
As teacherpreneurs with the Center for Teaching Quality, both of us sought opportunities to meet with state leaders and initiate conversations about education policy. While our roles gave us structured time for this work, the five “trade secrets” we share here can be adapted and used by any teacher who wants to advocate for the profession.
- Take the lead. The first step might be an email framed as an invitation for a discussion, followed by a phone call. Personal connections and networking often lead to unexpected results. Nancy handed her business card to a U.S. senator on a plane and later was contacted by his top educational advisor. Deidra lived in the same neighborhood as her state representative and invited him to discuss his education policy work with her. In order to establish trust and open communication, each of us held several small group discussions with local politicians, including state representatives and educational advisors. We realized that meetings are more productive in informal settings (coffee shops or local restaurants). And we both asked politicians to join us for solutions-focused conversations about several education concerns, not just those related to salaries and benefits.Remember that certain months are extremely hectic (new campaigns, last-minute budget sessions), so don’t get discouraged if you don’t hear something immediately. The lack of response to an initial email or phone call does not necessarily mean you are being avoided. Keep reaching out.
- Offer support. Politicians are used to being asked to DO things for their constituents. Set the tone by offering your insight without implying that you expect anything more than open dialogue. Try to be empathetic, imagining how you would respond if parents or administrators seemed only interested in their own agendas, rather than two-way conversations. Acknowledge areas of agreement, then try to steer the conversation to making the public aware of the rationale behind these shared opinions. Consider tweeting about these productive conversations, making sure to let the policymaker know what you plan to share and why.
- Keep it real. Use your classroom and school as examples of what policies look like in real time. Connect political decision-making with the faces of the teachers and students those choices will impact. Deidra’s state representative shared that he wished he would known more about how an actual school day works before voting on an attendance bill that made sense on paper but created all sorts of problems when implemented. Representatives in North Carolina told Nancy they would appreciate being invited to visit classes, not as a local media event, but as informal observers. Sharing your stories– explaining the implications of a policy on students’ and teachers’ daily lives — can make all the difference when a politician has to vote on the myriad bills coming his or her way.
- Be professional yet accessible. Our ultimate goal is educating policymakers so they make decisions that improve public education. Don’t bring a soapbox or political agenda to your meeting; it’s the quickest way to shut down productive dialogue. Approach your lawmaker as a fellow community member or parent who shares your desire to improve public education for all students. In this spirit, try to avoid “educationese” and acronyms– terms that most non-teachers do not understand, such as “VAM” (Value Added Model), “PLN” (professional learning network), “summative assessment” or “backwards design.”
- Articulate your vision. Paint a picture of an ongoing relationship, rather than providing input on a single issue. When Deidra met with her representative, she wanted to know where lawmakers got their information on education issues, but she also wanted to share her vision for teachers becoming providers of that information. As a result, her representative asked for her help in forming an advisory committee to meet with him regularly while the legislature was in session. He later admitted this group’s insight was responsible for changing the way he had originally planned to vote. In North Carolina, Nancy is working to set up a “kitchen cabinet” of teacher leaders who want to discuss issues with politicians in a solutions-focused, informal environment.
Ultimately, we have to believe that teachers and politicians want the same thing: to improve the educational opportunities and experiences for all students and families. Although our worlds are vastly different, it’s time for us to reach out and start meaningful conversations. Taking the lead, while focusing on collaboration and empathy, is within the realm of the possible for all teachers. And it may provide just the spark needed to fuel revolutionary change in education policy — without the aid of gunpowder, tea or the Boston harbor.
Deidra Gammill is National Board Certified CTE teacher from Mississippi. She served as a teacherpreneur for the Center for Teaching Quality during the 2014-15 school year.
Nancy Gardner, a renewed National Board Certified English language arts teacher from North Carolina, served as a teacherpreneur for the Center for Teaching Quality during the 2014-15 school year.