Inequalities and disparities in education have always been painfully obvious to me. I spent the first five years of my teaching career working in a desperately understaffed school. The district was unable to afford a full-time nurse to support students with a G-tube and other medical needs, or multiple assistants for classrooms with severe needs. Supplies were hard to come by as well. When I saw my students using crayons to write on white boards because the district couldn’t afford dry erase markers, I knew I had to do something.
Through my work with Teach Plus, a teacher leadership organization of which I’m an alumna, I was able to illustrate my struggles through an op-ed detailing what lack of funding looked like and what school funding reform would mean to my students and me. One of my local legislators read the piece and reached out for a meeting. I was able to show him my class and point out areas where additional funding would increase educational outcomes for the children in his district. Through this meeting, I was able to educate my legislator and build a relationship with him. The meeting also inspired the newspaper’s editorial board to come out in favor of the school funding bill. As a teacher, I had a deep impact on policy because I used my passion to share my experience with decision makers. They need to hear our stories; teachers need to be part of these conversations.
My impact multiplied exponentially when I partnered with other teachers from other communities who also shared their stories. Several teachers and I advocated with legislators and in communities across the state. We held a rally in Springfield on school funding reform. Together, as teachers, with our communities and legislators, we passed historic school funding reform in Illinois. Teacher voice made a difference for the children of Illinois and will continue to do so as long as teachers are willing to speak up, share their stories, and advocate for what they believe in.
Teaching is inherently political. There are laws and policies that govern who can be a teacher, what education one needs to attain in order to teach, how teachers can discipline their students, how much teachers are paid, and what standards teachers should teach. The list goes on and on. Teacher voice should be an integral part of the conversations where such policies are set. Professors of teacher preparation programs are in a unique position to teach teacher candidates about the pivotal role they can play in policy and how to do so.
The best way to get started in advocacy is to simply find out who your legislators are. Professors should encourage teacher candidates to use websites such as openstates.org to research their legislators. State and federal legislators are there to represent all of their constituents, even those who may not have voted for them. Teachers and teacher candidates should establish a relationship with their legislator, even if there is no issue for which they are currently advocating.
To prepare for a meeting with a legislator:
- Have a story to tell – Personal stories have a tremendous power to influence policy. These are the stories that lawmakers need to hear to influence their decisions.
- Bring data – It is often beneficial to come with research backing up your position.
- Engage in dialogue – Influencing policy is not a one-stop shop. Policy is unlikely to change in a single conversation. Be prepared to build a lasting relationship with the decision maker.
- Propose a solution – A solutions-oriented approach is often one of the most influential. Teacher candidates should research the proposed solution and make sure that it is applicable beyond their classroom.
- Have an ask – Are you asking your legislator to support or oppose a piece of legislation? The ask should be central to your conversation and supported by your data. It should be in line with the proposed solution.Building consensus:
When meeting with legislators and other decision makers it is beneficial to build a consensus. Find something that you can agree on and build the conversation from there. It can be something as simple as wanting to help the students in your community. Keep in mind that legislators are often not experts in education. They are asked to make decisions in many areas, including education, health care, the environment, and the economy and cannot become an expert in each area. Teachers are the experts in education and should use their expertise to teach and inform legislators just as they do their students.
Policies teacher candidates can focus on:
Professors of teacher preparation programs can engage teacher candidates by engaging them in issues that currently impact them, such as the requirements to becoming a teacher in Illinois, particularly the basic skills assessment or the minimum salary for teacher positions in our state. Teacher candidates may not be ready to engage with decision makers and that’s ok. They can connect with other professionals through teacher’s unions, NAEYC, The Ounce, Teach Plus, and other organizations. Following these groups on social media or signing up for their email lists are effortless ways to stay updated on important issues and advocacy opportunities. Most importantly, this will help teacher candidates to build their advocacy muscle so that when they’re ready to engage, they’ll have the tools and connections to do so.
Kali Goldberg holds a bachelors degree in early childhood education from Elmhurst College as well as a masters degree in curriculum and instruction from Western Governors University. She is in her sixth year teaching, currently in a blended at-risk and special education early childhood classroom in Maywood District 89. Kali is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.