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A Great First Date with Marriage Potential: Legislators and Teachers Get to Know One Another

I’ve always thought that when it comes to teachers and legislators, we need more marriages and fewer first (and only) dates. I’ve experienced too many one-time meetings that are more a trading of monologues than true dialogue. Lawmakers deliver pre-crafted talking points, teachers speak truth to power without worrying much about whether power listens; meeting adjourned.

Last week I experienced a welcome exception to that script. Five teachers from the Center for Teaching Quality met with 30 Education Chairs from the National Conference of State Legislatures for two days of debate, dialogue, and a shattering of stereotypes.

The meeting was notable for both the candor of the conversation and the level of mutual respect. That respect was in evidence not just during sessions, but in one-on-one conversations as teachers and legislators refilled our seventh cup of coffee or wandered the rocks along the San Francisco Bay once the official day’s business had concluded.

These three statements from legislators have stuck with me.


1. “So what do you think about _____?”

Two minutes after I sat down at a table, a Representative from Tennessee leaned over and said, “So what do you think about looping?” The two-day convening was filled with moments like these. Legislators kept asking us questions—not as a prologue to a dissertation of their own thoughts on the topic, but because they genuinely wanted to know what we thought.

On the surface, the legislator from Tennessee fit the stereotype of a Southern politician—a middle-aged white Republican congressman in a suit—often painted as an opponent of public education. Yet he asked dozens of incisive questions throughout the convening that revealed a keen curiosity as well as a deep respect for teachers’ work.

He told me the second day, “You know, I used to be a teacher, and I loved it. But my wife was a teacher, too, and when we tried to get a loan to buy our first house, the bank told me they wouldn’t extend credit to two teachers—we just didn’t make enough money. So I went into another line of work.”

There were several former teachers among the 30 Education Committee chairs, including a couple of retired career teachers with 35+ years in the classroom. The group also included a Senator-Teacher from Colorado in a fascinating hybrid role; he teaches middle school one semester each year, then goes on leave from his district for the legislative session.

These legislators were all over the map politically. The initiatives they had led in their states ranged from reducing kindergarten class size in Nevada to requiring that every graduating senior in Idaho pass a test on the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged. But they came to listen, not just to speak, and they asked our opinions on everything from over-testing to teacher prep.


2. “We keep testing because we’re not seeing the results we want.”

On a panel that began with a focus on high-performing countries, I expressed my belief that we’re measuring the wrong things—basic skills rather than 21st century skills. While the U.S. tests students every year with relatively cheap and low-quality tests, many high-performing countries like Finland spend more on tests that measure more complex abilities, but they only test every three or four years.

A legislator from Oklahoma told me, “We keep testing because we’re not seeing the results we want.” It was a fascinating window into the way many lawmakers see testing—as an antidote to low academic achievement, not just a measurement of it. A solution, not just a diagnosis of the problem.

I told him the metaphor of feeding the elephant—though in a fit of state pride, I swapped the elephant for a hog. “If I kept weighing my hog every day, but I never fed the thing, I’d end up frustrated because the hog wouldn’t get any heavier. ‘I keep weighing this animal, but it’s not gaining any weight!’ If you reallocated some of the money, time, and focus that goes into annual standardized testing, and spent it instead on tutoring, professional development, or recruiting skilled teachers for high-needs schools, you’d be more likely to see the increase in student achievement that you want.”

The legislator grinned, and he came up later to thank all of us. It was one of those elusive moments when you come away with the clear sense that you imparted something useful and lasting to a lawmaker, in this case a small but meaningful adjustment in the way he views the connection between student learning and testing.


3. “You’re not, either!”

Near the end of our panel, I told the legislators that they had shattered my stereotype of politicians. They were respectful of teachers, courageous in their convictions (most of them continue to support Common Core despite heat from both the right and left), and dedicated to working on behalf of students. I said, “You are not the stereotype.”

They laughed, and someone from the back of the room called out, “You’re not, either!”

Just as I had my assumptions about lawmakers when I walked into the meeting, they had their own set of assumptions about teachers. Both sides made some adjustments to our stereotypes when a category of people gave way to actual individuals.

Apart from the incremental adjustments we all made in our view of education, the trust built between a handful of teachers and a handful of legislators may be the most important outcome of the meeting.

Teachers have undoubtedly become a scapegoat for all the ills of our education system, real and imagined, ranging from the inferior education that inner-city students receive to the economic threats posed to American dominance by rising nations like China and India.

If you ask people what they think of teachers in general, then ask them what they think of their own child’s teacher, you often hear a glaring disconnect. The stereotype of teachers as lazy, reform-resistant, bottom-of-the-class union goons just doesn’t jive with the reality of hardworking, thoughtful professionals that most parents experience as their child goes through school.

But many teachers do our own share of stereotyping—making sweeping statements about “soulless administrators,” painting anyone from the Gates Foundation as a helmeted clone in the Empire, or assuming that middle-aged white Southern Senators don’t give a damn about lower-income students of color. Sometimes it’s a relief to realize we’re wrong.


The five teachers at the convening gave the legislators plenty to think about. It was remarkable to me that educators from five different states, who teach students ranging from 2nd graders to high school seniors, shared so many convictions when it came to policy solutions. We agreed on the need to develop tests that measure more than pick-the-right bubble basic skills, for example, and that if teacher prep programs are indeed weak, it makes more sense to fix them than eliminate them.

We also broke the stereotyped image some of the legislators had of teachers. They saw how deeply we care about students and how hard we have worked to get better at our craft. They realized that teachers can be constructive partners in thinking through education policy, connecting what works in individual classrooms to the level of state systems.

But we learned a lot from the legislators, too. We realized how difficult and complicated their work can be, and how many barriers exist to common-sense solutions. We learned that sometimes the middle-aged white Representative from Tennessee cares deeply about equity, and the union-busting Rep from Alabama is desperate to bring students in his state the kinds of schools they deserve.

We disagreed about plenty of policy, and the legislators disagreed among themselves. But everyone in the room listened more than we spoke, respected the integrity of the speaker even when we disagreed with their position, and came away from the convening as partners rather than adversaries.   

There’s already talk of turning this initial meeting into an ongoing partnership, in which teachers and state legislators could learn together and collaborate on specific legislation.

The convening was exceptional, as first dates go. It just might turn into an even better marriage.


John Holland commented on June 22, 2014 at 1:39pm:

More marriage / less blind dates


This is a brilliant post. It entirely captures the power and beauty of why, as teachers, we need to fearlessly engage. Thank you. It also hits on the key to changing the perception of teachers in our country. I have reposted it on my Facebook and twitter campaign dedicated to changing sterotypes of teachers. #IknowaTeacher


Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 22, 2014 at 2:54pm:

Thanks so much, John!

John Holland, you're a prince among men. Thanks for the kind words and the reposts. I don't know how I missed your #IknowaTeacher campaign, but I love this concept.

I confess to confusion on a key point: the more I meet the people involved with education, the more I'm mystified to why so much of the system is such a mess. The individuals I meet in the U.S. Department of Ed, at Foundations, and in our profession are generally thoughtful and dedicated to student well-being. Yet we all see the broken policies and inequity that persist despite a tremendous amount of thought, time, and intention put into making schools better for kids.

I'd love your (or any reader's) take on that disconnect. Are the systems not as broken as most of us think? Are there villains in the system I'm not detecting? Or is there another explanation?

Renee Moore commented on June 22, 2014 at 4:57pm:

Here's to Courtship

The art of courtship, actually getting to know someone BEFORE making a commitment, drawing a conclusion, or jumping in bed, is an important cultural practice that deserves resurrection---socially and politically.

This part of your piece struck me:

But many teachers do our own share of stereotyping—making sweeping statements about “soulless administrators,” painting anyone from the Gates Foundation as a helmeted clone in the Empire, or assuming that middle-aged white Southern Senators don’t give a damn about lower-income students of color. Sometimes it’s a relief to realize we’re wrong.

Past and current events here in MS have taught us why we should look past the surface much more than we do in this media driven society of ours. Thanks for representing us so well at the meeting; hope there are many more conversations like these.

Steven Athanases commented on June 22, 2014 at 8:39pm:

Feed the hogs!

Loved your analogy of feeding the hogs rather than just repeaterdly weighing them! The account of legislators asking questions and listening was inspiring. More dialogue and collaborative action needed!


Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 23, 2014 at 1:57pm:

Thanks, Steve/Strata!

I keep pondering why the legislators were so open and inquisitive (rather than being defensive/more focused on talking than listening, which I have witnessed at other gatherings). Some of it's hard to recreate--it's always nice to be at a lodge at Tiburon, but not always financially feasible--but I also think it had to do with a few key factors including these two:

1. Teachers and legislators sat together at tables and were framed as equals, rather than having legislators up on a dais and teachers standing up to deliver mini-speeched at them.

2. The teacher panel was geared toward a topic the legislators had requested to learn more about (internatonal best practices of high-performing countries.)

Thanks for reading and responding!

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 22, 2014 at 9:26pm:

My favorite comments are those that...

My favorite comments are those that extend a metaphor, and I love your addition to this one, Renee.You also offer a good reminder that it's not only about waiting before passing a negative judgment on someone, but waiting to get past first impressions before committing to work with or endorse an individual/group, too. I'm always grateful for your wisdom, gained through experience as well as reflection.

Sandy Merz commented on June 23, 2014 at 11:53am:

Arizona's Take Your Legislator To Lunch

This fall the Arizona K12 Center will help several classroom teachers host their legislators to a day in their classrooms. I'm not involved in the program, but it seems like its impact could be huge. More to come...

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 23, 2014 at 2:00pm:


Love the idea, Sandy. It strikes me how important it is to have a two-way flow between teachers and legislators:

Direction 1: Teachers go up to the state house and meet with legislators on an ongoing basis.

Direction 2: Legislators come into our classrooms to visit.

Chris Poulos, CT Teacher of the Year 07, developed a brilliant program called the CT Tour of Schools in which legislators came to visit classrooms, then talked with teachers about what they saw. He tells the story of one legislator who said, "I had no idea students were building robots in class. It's so different from when I was in school."

Susan Graham commented on June 23, 2014 at 11:54am:

The Power of Witholding Judgement

The "first date" analogy got me thinking about how much  our assumptions impact "first dates." I almost turned down the first date with my husband of 41 years because I stereotyped him based on doofus of a roommate and a  serious fashion faux pas. At the same time, I've seen people make regrettable decisions by rushing to the ideological altar blinded by the "first date" stars in their eyes. And as I think about this it occurs to me that when we stereotype people, we don't just  make assumptions about that individual; Indirectly, we are making assumptions about a lot of  people associated with that individual.

When teachers assume that politicians are heartless manipulators, they are, in effect, assuming that the constiuency are either powerless, not very bright, or also heartless. And that teachers smarter, better intended, and  more competent than elected officials and voters.

When politicans assume that teachers are lazy and ill prepared, they are, in effect, assuming that parents and community are powerless, not very bright, or don't much care. And that politicians are smarter, better intended, and more competent that teachers or voters.  

So, I have to assume that those who make those assumptions are either egomaniacs or else they are illogical and not very bright. Accepting negative stereotypes denigrates everyone, not just targeted groups.

When we judging without knowing, we abdicate our right to decided for ourselves and negate the right to decide for others.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 23, 2014 at 2:04pm:

Brilliant, Susan!

Susan, you wrote this eloquent comment and yet the lingering question I must have the answer to is: What was your husband's faux pas? I imagine a bowtie being involved...

You hit on yet another way that democracy and education are intertwined. Civic responsibility is seen by many in America as simply voting for President every 4 years, while the elections we have far more power to influence are often neglected. School board elections have an average turnout in the single digits, for example.

I love your voice--it comes through even in a brief written comment. Thanks for the insights. (And seriously: What was the poor man wearing?)

Susan Graham commented on June 25, 2014 at 12:13am:

First Dates and Ulterior Motives

You know, communicating with elected officials is sort of like communications with parents. If you can make a "get to know you" contact before you need to make a "we have an issue" contact, that second email goes down better. And by the way, I always prefer email because I can write it, save the draft and review it before I hit SEND. It gives the recipient time to digest what I said and respond without pressure and IMHO is more likely to elicit a serious response.  And for better or worse, it  creates a paper trail of what he said/she said. And that reminds me of my fatheralways said "Keep your words sweet  Susan, because you never know when you'll have to eat them." Yes, I have ulterior motives. 

And since inquiring minds want to know: My first glimpse of my husband in the parking lot of my apartment building  in 1973. He was wearing  mustardy gold "jumpsuit." For of you who are less than ancient, imagine a garment a little like a biohazard overall purchased in the men's leisurewear department of KMart. Gary was a Tall , but the jumpsuit wasn't, so it gave him a something of a wedgie and the legs ended about 3 inches shy of his black Florshiem wing tips, exposing his brown dress socks.  Not too promising, BUT...I was junior class sponsor and responsible for homecoming and that outfit was accessorize with a matching mustardy gold Triumph convertible.....And sometimes a teacher's got to do what a teacher's go to do...I had ulterior motives. 


Forty -one years later, he still commits fashion faux pas, but there is a lesson there about passing judgement based on appearances. He was a little nerdy, but he was also really nice and he did come drive that car in the homecoming parade for me. ,And while he's still a little nerdy, his retirement present to himself was a bottle green Corvette convertible which is more cool than the TR6. (And yes, he still occasionally drives a homecoming queen around the field at halftime, becuase a teacher's got to do what a teacher's got to so, and while he didn't become a fashion plate, at 54, he did become a teacher.).  :)


Alesha Daughtrey commented on June 23, 2014 at 2:49pm:

modeling the best of teaching

What I love most about this blog post, Justin - and all the other reports I've heard from the meeting - is how beautifully you all modeled TEACHING at its finest. Susan hit the nail on the head: we all enter conversations (especially first conversations) just full of assumptions. It's part of human nature. But part of the skill of a teacher is to hang onto the inquiry stance, question those assumptions, meet others where they are that day, respond to those needs of the moment, and simply be present to ask and answer honest questions.

Those committee chairs learned a ton from each of you as you broke down the implications of policies. I'm sure of it. You each know so much. But I hope they also recognized that part of the reason why is that you are each exceptional teachers and learners - and that's those exchanges were able to be so meaningful for everyone. Thanks for continuing to show us all the power of the profession!

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 24, 2014 at 1:21pm:

"Whatever you do, you're teaching."

Alesha, thanks for this very kind and insightful comment. My own entry into teacher leadership was abrupt, because it happened through the Teacher of the Year program, and it was the first time I had given a speech to 1,400 teachers or met with a U.S. Senator. The program director, Jon Quam, gave us great advice, "Just remember that whatever you do, you're teaching."

He emphasized the role of trust--whether you're building rapport with a kindergartener or the Commissioner of your state, the process is in some ways similar. I continue to be amazed by how critical "the human element" is.

The Senator-Teacher at the NCSL convening joked that teaching middle school prepared him in many ways for working in the State House: "You have all the same dynamics--cliques, bullies, hurt feelings."

What's different, of course, is the perceived and actual power differential when you're meeting with someone who has a great deal of institutional power. But I love your points about hanging onto that "inquiry stance," meeting people where they are, and trying to respond as a professional but also a human being as you teach and learn with new colleagues.

Tori Mazur commented on June 24, 2014 at 1:52pm:


It sounds as though everyone walked away with a new appreciation for one another. How inspiring. 

Here in North Carolina, we are preparing for a "School's Out Rally" tomorrow. At one point in the day, we will be meeting with legislators. I have done this type of Educator Wednesday lobbying for several years and so many of the legislators are the same. Yet, it seems like they need reminding every year that we have previously met. Would this be considered speed dating?

I am wondering how to get to those lingering over-coffee moments you mention.  How can we build a sustainable (if you're going to be re-elected indefinitely) partnership by which we converse without the forced pleasantries,  so we can pick up where we left off in the previous conversation? I am not opposed to pleasantries,  by the way. I have social etiquette.  It just seems like we could get further if the relationships were built to last beyond the next election cycle.   I may need to find out where these folks get coffee in their home districts. Nobody wants to experience 50 1st dates. 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 24, 2014 at 6:09pm:

On speed dating...with a shoutout to Rod Powell

Such a great question, Tori. It sounds like you have made time for this work and I imagine you're savvy about these conversations and could teach me a thing or two about building these partnerships. That said, I'll put in my two or three cents in response to your excellent question.

1. I used to go to these kinds of meetings (and conferences in general) with a clear idea of what I wanted to SAY. I've tried to shift that focus to what I want to ASK. So I would have a couple of general questions in mind and maybe a specific one for legislators whose positions/experience you know a bit about. Most people like to hold forth with their views, and it may be easier to begin a meaningful conversation with a specific question about a given legislator's views on (insert topic here), which will open up the chance for you to impart your own perspective. For example: Say you want to convey that relationships between teachers and kids matter and aren't just a warm and fuzzy, optional thing. You might ask that legislator to tell you about her/his best teacher. After they reminisce, you can point out that it sounds like the relationship with that teacher (not their contribution to AYP that year) had a tremendous impact, and you can tell your own story about impacting a student in a similar way.

2. Rather than trying to make sure I insert a certain talking point, I try to see these conversations in terms of a longer game partnership. A friend of mine (a teacher) who is very good at building rapport quickly often asks a version of, "How can I be of service to your work?" Conveying that you're interested in a long-term partnership and that you want to support a legislator's work can often be more compelling to them than hearing one more opinion from a constitutent.

3. Remember that inside the suits, they're people, too. Some of them probably feel socially awkward/anxious and want to move past chit chat into a genuine conversation, just like you do. A straightforward, "Hi, I'm ___," followed by a question, can open up a meaningful conversation. (Rod Powell, Collaboratory member from NC, is excellent at this.)

Hope that's somewhat useful. Let us know how it goes!



Rod Powell commented on June 25, 2014 at 9:39pm:

Lessons from my Father in Law

Hey Justin - Thanks for the shout out!  

I totally agree with you Tori - I think political figures are great at superficial campaign and small talk.  But are they unsure ot fearful about how to start a genuine conversation with a NC teacher that's been hammered for so long?  Are they afraid of what they'll hear?

I imagine that today's event was covered by the media.  

How did it go - by the way?

Did our NCGA members want to talk in party line sound bites for the media?  Did you get the feeling that they had to toe the party line in the meeting?

I learned from my father in law (a long time Lebanese American businessman in small town Mooresville NC) the value of a good question in starting a conversation.  He was remarkable in striking common ground with strangers ( I think it was the old Dale Carnegie courses he took) with a question about family, hometown, college sports team...he never missed.

I took a page from his book when we (legislators and teachers alike) introduced ourselves in the opening session  NCLA.  I made quick notes about each legislator as they introduced themselves - noting accomplishments, sponsored legislation, personal information.....anything that seemed they were proud of. These were instant conversation starters after I introduced myself during our time together.  

I remember one conversation in particular with a representative from New Jersey who had worked to reform NJ's tenure law.  A quick, "Hi, I'm Rod Powell from North Carolina - I wanted to introduce myself.  I'd love to hear about the work you did in NJ reforming tenure for teachers....." launched a great 15 minute conversation that Barnette Berry joined.  

How would that work with our own Jerry Tillman?  What would be a common ground question to initiate a convo. with him?

I will say too, that my work with CTQ has given me the confidence as a professional to walk right up to a politically well placed legislator and initiate a conversation about my classroom work and career.

Tori Mazur commented on July 2, 2014 at 11:03am:

Definitely a First Date

I like the idea of having something to ask them, Justin.  While waiting to meet Rep. Rieives, another state House member approached us in the hallway and we made acquaintance briefly.  I cannot remember where he is from, but I remember thinking it didn't really matter.  We needed all legislators on board for voting in favor of our pro-public ed agenda.  This led me to ask him what he thought of Common Core.  (Our legislature is deciding how to repeal the standards and need to hash out a compromise bill before the short session ends any day now).  He didn't have time to tell me, as my House member came to greet us, but I think it's valuable to know where they stand before I start jumping on them with my own assertions. If I run into him again, I have a starting place.  "So, have you had a chance to reflect on the Common Core issue since we last met?" Maybe.

How did it go, Rod? It was definitely a first date.  

The last time I had been to the legislature, I had different representatives in the House and Senate.  Redistricting and a resignation (yet another) have replaced faces in the offices we used to frequent.  I had only met Representative Reives once during a candidate forum arranged by the Chatham County Association of Educators.  I reminded him of this brief meeting when we shook hands outside of his office.  The exchange is part of the North Carolina Public Radio story (transcript), reported the next morning by Reema Khrais. I asked him where I could stalk him later to have a sit-down!  I might have scared him, but at least I offered a heads-up and he can have security on stand-by.  

Did I get the sense that Rep. Rieves was towing the party line?  Not really. Again, it was more superficial than that.  When I asked him how we can have those sit-down conversations to get to the real meat of the issues, he kept saying that people can let them [legislators] know how they feel by voting.  I think this was mostly because he still has a November election to contend with and Reema's microphone was under his nose.  That was when I pushed to find out his coffee spot in Pittsboro.  Regardless of November's election, he still has a vote now.  I did find out that he had children in our public schools, so he has a vested interest! 

When trying to catch up with State Senator Foushee in the building across the bridge, we were unable to because the Senators were in session. We left our Do and Don't lists with her office staff.  Pre-date? This was more like filling out a profile, seeing if we're a match, and waiting for her to poke me.  If she can keep sending blanket emails asking for campaign funding, she can at least respond to our concerns with a personal follow-up.  

When we have visited Sen. Tillman in the past, my colleagues had found common ground in that his wife had Chatham County teaching experience and we are neighboring districts with similar needs. It was rather easy to open up the conversation, but I never walked out of there with a sense that he had truly heard our concerns.  It reminds me of teaching my middle schoolers the difference between hearing me and activtely listening.  While he may not waver from his adamant stance, at least he had an open door and would sit down with us for a few minutes between sessions.

I have found it easier to walk up to a legislator while standing at the elevator or in the basement cafeteria.  The elevator is the best! Where can they go? You have to speak quickly and pointedly, though because those elevators move!  

This has become less intimidating over time because I am a diehard viewer of Legislative Week in Review and have become familiar with faces and names.  I tracked down former middle/high school teacher and assistant principal, Rep. Tricia Cotham after recognizing her from t.v.!  Same with Pricey Harrison. I popped my head into her office during our visit and thanked her for being a champion for the environment and also asked for her support on the education front.  There is something about the power of television and a false sense of "knowing" people that are in your living room on a weekly basis (while in session).  

Now I just have to get to the point where they know us as well as we know them. 

Rod Powell commented on July 6, 2014 at 2:56pm:


I'm impressed Toni!

You know you way around the NC Leg. building!

Are you using social media?  Facebook? Twitter?

Your words are making me realize what a unique opportunity we had in San Fran. - I wish our man from NC was there.

Jason Parker commented on June 25, 2014 at 10:46am:

Politician from TN

Am struck by the statement “You know, I used to be a teacher, and I loved it. But my wife was a teacher, too, and when we tried to get a loan to buy our first house, the bank told me they wouldn’t extend credit to two teachers—we just didn’t make enough money. So I went into another line of work.”

Am sure that must have been many years ago. Not much has changed, has it?

Laura Calderisi commented on July 9, 2014 at 12:23pm:

Don't believe everything you hear.

Your blog reminds me of my "first date" with a school board member that left me wondering "Who would ever want to marry a man like this?". As just some middle-aged, very successful businessman, surely he was more interested in the bottom line than anything else.  My colleagues and I were sure that the rumors of his bad attitude toward teachers were truth because we had not given him the opportunity to convince us otherwise.

Years later, after meaningful conversations and actually getting to know this man, the stereotype has been shattered and my tendency to believe everything I hear has been replaced with desire to dig deeper before making a judgment.  It turns out he's one of our biggest advocates and sincerely wants the best for us.  

A successful marriage is a lot of work, and I thank you for being willing to do that work on behalf of teachers!

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