7 Steps I Took to Become an Advocate for Students

I have been working for some time, going beyond my classroom, to help create the educational system students deserve. I sort of consider it my side job. It began when I was in teacher preparation and I accepted teaching as my calling. Since that time it has been a constant passion and lived in the underpinning of the opportunities I seek out. As I begin my 18th year in education I thought I would offer some perspective on how I have grown as an advocate for students in the form of seven steps.

Walk the Walk. Historically, teacher leadership has been complicated by the politically charged anoint-and-appoint method of leadership recognition. Grade level and content area chairs are named by the principal. At the time, and possibly still, becoming a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) was the only way to do estabilish my credibility independent of school leadership. I first decided to attempt NBCT after reading an article in the Washington Post Magazine in 2001. I realized that if I wanted to gain a voice in creating a better education for students and teachers I needed to establish my credibility. I knew the last thing I wanted to talk about with a community member or a policymaker was my personal teaching ability. I hope that when I talk about teaching my observations, stories, and experiences ring true with authenticity. However, we live in a credentialing society. In 2002 when I first began National Board I wanted to prove that I could not only “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk” of the accomplished teacher.

Look for opportunities. Some of the most valuable professional development I have participated in, besides the NBCT process, has been the teacher leadership trainings I engaged in through the Center for Teacher Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University and virtual online community trainings and leadership sessions with the Center for Teaching Quality. In both these settings I gained invaluable knowledge and skills from experts in the field of education policy like Barnett Berry and Terry Dozier. I became familiar with adult learning theory, peer coaching, policy analysis, engaging presentation, real-time and virtual collaboration, and communications. There are numerous opportunities like this throughout the country but if you can’t find any locally, contact a professional organization and start asking teacher leaders you admire where you can begin. In both these settings the professional networks I built have sustained and nurtured in my career.

Start writing. Almost every adult in America has an experience of school and a vision of good teaching based on their experiences. Everyone has a yardstick. The problem is this vision is almost always based on their perspective of what they remember as a student or experience as a parent and so it is a slightly different length than everyone else’s. I learned, by writing about my teaching publicly, what I believe and how I see teaching. In exploring my teaching I learned who I am as a teacher and discovered how policies influence my teaching and my perceptions of education. Finally, by providing a lens on teaching from a teacher’s perspective I offer the profession another, possibly more realistic, yardstick for the public to judge teachers.

Know the law. Often in schools we receive education policy three or four steps removed from its written language. By taking ownership of really understanding policies such as NCLB and Race to the Top, I became empowered to influence their implementation at local, state, and national levels. It is also critical to understand the sordid history of our most influential laws and state policies that influence everything from how we experience accountability to how we craft curriculum. Two of the most important courses I took in my Ph.D. program were a history of the Elementary Seconadary Education Act class, taught by the President of the State Board of Education at the time and a policy class taught by a former state Superintendent of Public Schools. In these courses I was able to hear the stories that influenced the crafting of the policies I was experiencing as an educator. I also learned that it is much easier to gain access to policymakers than I thought.

Learn communications skills. One of the most influential resources I have found, as I turned from a writer about teaching to a writer about education policy, is the communications research organization Frameworks Institute. The institute provides resources on messaging about education that are research based. One of the most critical skills I took away from following the work of Frameworks is that there is often a predominant metaphor or story at work underneath education policies. In learning to identify these metaphors and offer alternatives, I have found that I am able to connect with people on the other side of an issue on a more common ground. Another valuable skill I have learned is the phrase, “Yes, AND…” When I have conversations with people who seem to have different values about education than I do, I realize that at the core, we probably want the same thing: a great educational system for all kids. What we disagree on is how to get there. By learning how to agree, but also clarify, I have found that I end up on the same side of some educational issues with those I expect to disagree with. Finally, in regards to communications, being aware of personal biases and underlying core stories in my own perspective have helped me to realize that many times disagreement comes more from language than intention.

Get involved. Folks in public policy often say there is a difference between eating sausage and watching it made in the factory. I learned that in 2007 when I volunteered to serve on Senator (then Virginia Governor) Tim Kaine’s Start Strong Initiative, which worked to craft a progressive early childhood system for Virginia. It was incredibly rewarding to work with higher education professors, researchers, and state level leaders to figure out a cohesive approach to early childhood education. In that setting I learned that I have a number of skills that transfer from teaching to policymaking including perspective taking, consensus building, organization, group facilitation, and visual brainstorming.

Don’t be afraid: Learn to ask questions. One thing it has taken me a long time to learn is do not be afraid of power. I first started confronting this fear by having closed door conversations with my principal when I disagreed with one of her decisions about my classroom. I approached this with my characteristic vulnerability but also solid research. By directly addressing an issue, even if her mind was not changed, I was able to leave the office stronger after having spoken truth to power. This seemed to raise my credibility with my principal as well. Now, I have learned that talking about hard things with those in power is critical. Issues like, placement of weak teachers in challenging grades, teachers’ ability to relate to students of different racial backgrounds, and the level of support for teacher learning. When I think of people who are unafraid to speak truth to power I think of people like Jose Vilson, X’ian Barrett, and Sabrina Stevens. These educators never shy from the hard conversations. And hard conversations are what we need to have if we are going to provide students the educational system they deserve. We have to constantly ask, “How does this help children?” when we are talking about education policy.

Hopefully, by exploring the steps I have taken (so far) I will help other teachers who wants to make a difference. Please let me know in the comments about steps you have taken to becoming a stronger advocate for children.

Image: Remixed by jmholland – Alice Walker

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