Teachers can have a positive impact on education policy, we just have to use our teacher voice
It was fall 2020 and I delivered my Zoom testimonial to the Texas State Board of Education. When I finished my comments, I turned off my camera and sat quietly in my classroom, unsure of how the board members received my words. It was the first time in many years that Texas overhauled its sex education standards, which would impact millions of students in Texas for many years to come. Texas sex education standards make no mention of LGBTQIA+ identities, thereby denying LGBTQIA+ students the relevant information that their cisgender and heterosexual classmates receive.
As I waited to be fired, a board member turned on his microphone and said, “Mr. Carlisle, if you could send me those recommendations in writing, I’d like to take a look. I think your points are very well placed. Then, after sending her my proposed amendments, she presented those recommendations in the form of a formal amendment.
Although the council ultimately voted against including LGBTQIA+ identities and health needs in the standards, I noticed a pattern among the witnesses: almost none were teachers. This pattern is not unique to education policy spaces. To be clear, this lack of testifying teachers was not the fault of the educators. There are many structural barriers, both unintended and intentional, that impede teachers’ participation in policy-making.
If elected officials do not listen to teachers is not a new phenomenon, education is at a turning point. We need to be creative in how we engage because there is power in teachers who share their experiences in the classroom.
Far too often, the most important decisions about education are made by people with no experience in the classroom. Thinking you know what’s best for schools because you were a student is like saying you can perform open-heart surgery because you watched it in Grey’s Anatomy. Take, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s teacher shortage task force, where teachers make up just 2 of the task force’s 28 seats. Whatever the governor’s intention, you cannot adequately respond to the teacher shortage crisis when teachers have such a small voice in the process.
Clearly, there is a disconnect between elected officials’ perceptions of what schools need and what teachers say are the most pressing issues. For example, after 26 states introduced bills limiting how teachers discuss racism in the classroom, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions came together to publicly oppose such legislation. These bills emerged as many state governments pushed to reopen schools at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite numerous surveys indicating teachers were more likely to leave the profession due to conditions. dangerous jobs and burnout.
Unfortunately, many governing bodies such as State Boards of Education and State Legislatures make participation in the policy-making process nearly impossible for teachers. For example, registering for public testimony requires going through an intentionally cumbersome, byzantine registration process and in-person public hearings, usually during working hours. This forces teachers to find replacements, miss teaching time and travel to the state capitol to testify. In addition, many school districts actively discourage teachers from advocating on controversial issues, leading many teachers to rightly fear losing their jobs if they publicly advocate for their students’ needs.
To be creative
Every educator knows this scenario: your class has become too loud and you need to use your teacher’s voice to make yourself heard. To put it bluntly, if elected officials aren’t actively creating space for educators to be heard, that’s when we use our teacher’s voice. How then can we ensure that the perspectives of educators enter the political sphere? Here are some methods:
- Write an editorial. Many news outlets create space for op-eds or letters to the editor. If they want to publish your article, most news outlets will have an editor who will provide you with two to three rounds of edits. Opinion pieces by educators can be particularly valuable because of their ability to influence public discourse around a particular issue in education. Additionally, having an article published allows many people without classroom experience to hear first-hand how an existing or proposed policy affects students, teachers, and schools.
Invite a chosen one to your class. Most elected officials have no teaching experience, even those elected to state and local school boards. Additionally, many elected officials who visit schools use their experience to justify their vote on specific policies. By inviting a school board member or legislator into your classroom, they witness the conditions created by the policies and can hear directly from students and teachers about their needs. These visits have the potential to be transformative and can reduce the distance between decision makers and classrooms.
For example, when a member of the Texas State Board of Education visited my class this year, he witnessed a discussion about how the contributions of women and scientists of color are often erased from science lessons. Later, the board member shared with my principal that he was “blown away” by what my students were sharing and would bring what he learned back to the board with him.
- Testify at a public hearing. For almost all proposed policies, the government entity introducing the policy must provide the public with an opportunity to comment. Although most public testimony is limited to two or three minutes, it is one of the most powerful tools for change. Elected officials always share their constituents’ stories of the impact of a policy. Because elected officials remember stories, sharing your classroom experience can make a difference.
- Apply for a teaching policy scholarship. Because getting involved in policymaking can be so difficult to navigate, it often results in giving up before you even begin. However, education policy scholarships can potentially be the most effective avenue for advocacy. Not only do these policy fellowships work around your schedule as an educator, usually taking place during the summer or evenings, but they have the added benefit of working with an organization that specializes in engaging teachers in the policy making.
But what about burnout?
Granted, the first reaction of most educators reading this is probably disbelief. Along with the ever-growing list of things teachers need to do, this guy wants us to do more? Teacher burnout is a valid concern, especially when 90% of educators say burnout is a serious problem. However, a recent article by David Stieber highlights why we need to get involved: “Teachers are forced to operate in systems that don’t work well, which demoralizes, discourages and overwhelms them. The systems we work in are broken and we need to have teachers who play an important role in healing education.
Plus, extending your impact beyond the classroom can be transformational. As the Center for Youth & Community Leadership in Education asserts, “Engaging teachers as leaders and advocates can transform the teaching experience and address the critical issue of teacher dissatisfaction and shortage. “. I experienced this transformation in my way of seeing my role as an educator, which rekindled my passion for teaching when I felt lost in my profession.
Use your teacher’s voice
Many educators are advocates by nature. In fact, most teachers I know say they became teachers because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of their students. However, for educators looking to expand their impact beyond the classroom, this requires a shift in strategy. It doesn’t always mean you have to lead the charge or be the best public speaker, but find a way to use your gifts, tools, and strengths to create change.
This is a call to action for teachers: use your voice. To overcome the many obstacles that prevent us from being involved in public policy, we must use all the tools at our disposal to make our voices heard.