“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing”. I often heard my father use this quote by Edmund Burke in his sermons as part of a repeated call to action. I wonder today if public educators might need a similar call to action.
It appears that almost everyone in the field of public education believes that things are not as they should be. We are made to take actions for which we have not been funded, trained or prepared. We are expected to take on ever-expanding roles without the luxury of more time. We are governed by decisions about which we were not consulted. Our unsolicited opinions seem to go unnoticed at best and are punished too frequently. We are shaping the minds and hearts of the next generation and often feel that the rules of engagement are determined by folks who have never undertaken this task a single day or who have forgotten how hard it is do so.
And yet for all our frustration, we seem convinced that our only choices are to put on a brave face or to complain. I believe that there are better options.
In the past three weeks, I have visited both my state and the federal capital to speak with legislative representatives. On both occasions, I was privileged to be part of a delegation from the Alabama National Board Certified Teachers Network. We engaged these men and women on a range of issues from the significant impact to student learning when the teacher is of National Board Certified to the importance of high instructional standards. In every meeting I was part of, we were well received. The folks we were speaking to were attentive; they asked thoughtful questions; many responded with enthusiasm; each thanked us for coming and proposed a continued dialogue. Our voice certainly seemed to be heard.
In spite of the success of these visits, I am under no delusion that we changed the state in one day or the country in two. It did become clear to me that there was no reason for me to have waited until my fifteenth year in education to make first contact with a state-level elected official in support of education. I was also convinced that every teacher deserves a voice in this conversation but must claim that right his/herself.
In no particular order, here are five ideas that might help you find your professional voice and claim a spot in the conversation.
Tell a story. Someone is talking and writing about your school. Or about your district. Or about Public Education. If that someone is not an educator, chances are they aren’t telling the story the way you know it. Tell the real story yourself. Share examples of your students’ successes. You don’t have to be a “prolific blogger” or a tech guru or a master email writer to begin adding your voice to the conversation. Just tell about the great learning that is happening in your classroom. Post pictures of great learning to social media. Get a twitter account for your classroom and let your students promote their own learning. Ask to post 30 second videos on your school’s website. When you are in the grocery store, talk about what is right about your school.
Put students first. Talk to the people who matter (your community, your board, your legislator, etc) about what students are learning and can do. Higher pay for teachers is important. Better benefits and more real influence and a lower (or at least not a higher) co-pay are all issues that need to be addressed. But we did not get into this profession for any of these things. And talking about them does not capture anyone’s imagination. Stories about student successes do. Share them. Talk about them first and last and lots in-between.
Build relationships. I spoke with ten or fifteen legislators I had never met when I visited our state capital. My time was well spent. I am sure, however, that the person who took me most seriously, took the most notes and made the most concrete plans to act on our conversation was my local representative. You see, we have a relationship. He has been in our school. He attended an entire class last period and then spent most of the teacher’s planning period talking to her. He stayed the next class period talking to me. We have corresponded by email since then. I believe his time in my school and our subsequent conversations laid a foundation of credibility for me. One teacher can make a difference; it will probably take longer than one day.
Invite decision-makers to visit your classroom/school. Start with your immediate supervisor and work your way up to the governor … or the president. For the sake of full disclosure, in my experience a whole lot of folks you invite will not come for one reason or another. Many will. If you are changing students’ lives, that is something the people who have a say in how you do your job need to see. Don’t put on dog and pony shows when you do have visitors. They may not be teachers, but they know when what they are looking at is not a true “day in the life”. Your story is good enough without artificial bells and whistles anyway! A visit to your classroom will probably have a bigger influence on a decision-maker’s opinion than 100 phone calls and emails would.
Be brave. I am the sworn enemy of the status quo. For clarity, I have a very deep respect for my forbears and for the pantheon of greatness that has gone before me. I refuse to accept, however, that those champions of Learning and Education believed that success is achieved by remaining the same in perpetuity. I mean no disrespect to them when I insist that the innovations of their day must stand aside for the solutions that more fully address the challenges my students face. I urge you to be courageous for the sake of your students. Challenge tradition when it gets in the way of student learning. Wade through the educational jargon and make sure that real and deep learning happens in your classroom. Refuse to be the slave of a 60 question test. Be always courageous for the sake of student learning. In case you haven’t noticed, “innovative” and “intractable” are often used to describe the very same practice. Have the courage to risk the later in the pursuit of the former.
Perhaps “evil” is too strong a word to describe the challenges that Public Education faces. On the other hand very little is likely to change if good educators like you and like me take no action to protect our students and their learning. So today, instead of merely pointing out all that is wrong in public education, do something about it.