When we gather as teachers, hearing classroom “war stories” tossed about as we share our successes and struggles is common. We often feel beat up by mandates and practices inside our schools along with negative opinions from outside school walls, and many of us are seeking validation for our hard work.
However, if we want the practices and opinions to change so that we can provide the educational experiences our students deserve, we must be the ones to speak up and be willing to facilitate that change.
Like many of you, I did not become a teacher to become entangled with politics. I wanted to be in my classroom working face-to-face with my students. However, as more and more mandates infiltrated my classroom and pulled my focus away from sound practice, I kept asking, “Shouldn’t someone speak up?”
I went in search of answers. What I discovered was that those who were not with students day in and day out were the ones who were making the decisions, and they did not see the impact that those decisions had on students. We are on the front lines, so we need to speak up for our students.
For years, I heard the word advocacy brandished about; images of angry protesters on a picket line sprang to my mind. That’s when a wise person told me, “You’re an educator, the expert. Just educate those around you on best practices. Share your stories from the classroom.”
Stories are told every day about schools. Unfortunately, a vast majority are told by individuals who have no idea what teaching and learning look like in today’s digital age.
The good news is that we know what good teaching looks like. We experience it every day. We could fill volumes with the stories of our students’ accomplishments—both their struggles and their victories—and these are the stories that need to be told.
So where do we begin? How can we reach decision makers effectively while fostering change for students? Here are three ideas that I have found to be effective:
1. Build a network. Look around the school community. Find the people who serve on city council, the board of education, chamber of commerce, or in their church. Find those who own businesses or write for local publications. Every community, even those in areas with low socioeconomic levels, has these leaders. Reach out and invite them to become guest readers or provide extra sets of hands for classroom activities. Get them into schools so they can see what learning looks like. This also sets you up as an educational expert in the community. When a question or issue comes up, who will they reach out to first? You.
2. Stay in touch. Once you have built a network, stay in touch. Often. Memories in today’s digital world fade quickly. Discover how these individuals stay updated. If it’s e-mail, create an e-mail group. If it’s through social media, connect your class with them and encourage them to follow you back. Then every time something notable occurs, send out an e-mail or a post. Share your students’ stories of success and triumph (or let your students share them). Share victories big and small. Include photos, videos, projects, and student writing. Make the members of your network feel like they are an integral part of your learning environment.
3. Reach beyond. Building your local network lays a strong foundation for change. However, decisions often are made beyond our community’s borders. We need to reach policymakers, and often that means legislators. They need to become a part of our network as well. They need to see what true learning looks like in our classrooms. This is the step that most often causes trepidation because most of us prefer to stay away from politics. However, connecting with legislators can have the largest impact. When legislation arises that could affect education, reach out. Make a phone call. Write a letter. Most legislators admit they will never open an e-mail, but a handwritten note will get their attention.
Does this take time? Yes. Is it worth the investment we make? Absolutely. Like anything else, we need to remember that everything we do needs to be for our students. It’s not about us, but what is best for our learners.
Julie D. Ramsay is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of “Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?” Collaborating in Class and Online, Grades 3–8. She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL. She also travels the United States to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog, eduflections.