Tips for teachers participating in policy discussions

By Ali Crowley

Ali Crowley teaches Algebra 2 and AP Calculus at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A National Board Certified teacher with 11 years of experience, she is also a member of the Implementing Common Core Standards team.

Earlier this summer, I had the amazing opportunity to attend a meeting in Washington, D.C., that focused on Common Core State Standards assessments.  Several national education groups gathered to share their efforts on CCSS implementation. The two-day meeting was held in a conference room in the heart of downtown Washington.  (In fact, I could see the White House from the short walk from the hotel to the meeting location.)  Of the 30 people in attendance, I was the only teacher. At times, this was uncomfortable, but ultimately I realized that teachers must be involved in these events and conversations.

Below are some of my takeaways from the conference. I hope my lessons learned might inspire other teacher leaders to confidently take their seats at the policy table.

1.  You are not “just” a teacher.

Own the fact that you are the single most important factor in student achievement, and know that your perspective is critical in any conversation about education.

2.  Keep your students in the forefront of your mind at all times.

The fact that you see real, live students 176 days a year is what sets you apart from the other people in the room.  It definitely wasn’t easy for me to connect my classroom to the boardroom, but being able to “see” education through the eyes of actual students is really powerful.

3.   Don’t be intimidated! 

I have to admit that I was a little daunted by the fancy heels and business suits, not to mention the titles: Director of Policy Development, Director of Public Policy, Director of Teacher Quality, Associate Director of Teacher Initiatives…and so on and so forth. How does a teacher leader fit into that group?  The fact is, I didn’t, and truthfully, I was fine with that.  Teachers’ bonuses come in different forms, such as students leaving handmade valentines on our desks.  I can’t imagine that receiving a promotion in the business world could match the feeling of accomplishment teachers get when that student who has been struggling with a math concept looks up and says with a huge grin, “Oh! I get it now!”

4.  Don’t be surprised if you hear negative comments about teachers.

This is exactly why you are needed in the conversation!  Even though I felt like screaming when I heard statements like “We need to jolt teachers into new behaviors!” and “If teachers just believed that all students can learn,” I knew that I had to remain calm and focus on moving the discussion forward.  I wanted the people in the room to realize that classroom teachers are knowledgeable, innovative, and very ready to embrace any changes that would improve student achievement.

The fact that I was representing my profession ultimately gave me the courage to jump right in to the dialogue. And to my surprise, my comments were very well received. After I began to speak honestly about my experiences as a teacher, the energy in the room changed, and believe it or not, the attendees started to ask me direct questions. They began to look for my expertise to make connections from our discussions to what actually might happen in a classroom.

5.  Look beyond buzzwords.

Policy gurus love “edu-speak” and often place a lot of power in a word or phrase that is trending at the time.  When I think about the last decade, I recall a myriad of these buzzwords: project-based learning, student engagement, criterion-referenced assessments, bell-to-bell teaching, constructivist-based teaching, culturally responsive teaching, formative and summative assessment, rigor and relevance, differentiated instruction, just to name a few.  It was important for me to try to decipher exactly what the person was saying beneath the surface of the “edu-speak.” And to be honest, sometimes it didn’t make much sense.   Using language that everyone can understand—including parents and students—is so important as we implement the Common Core State Standards.

What I learned from this meeting is that everyone at the table has a stake in education, regardless of title or background. And we all really do have the same goal: to increase student learning in this country.    My hope is that when attendees from this meeting think about policies that will affect teachers and students, they will take a moment to visualize a real teacher with real students.

Although I viewed my involvement in this conference as an accomplishment, it still pales in comparison to the “thank you for being my teacher” email I received yesterday.  I know that sometimes I am so overwhelmed with what is happening within the walls of my building that it is difficult for me to see the bigger picture and to consider what my role might be in improving our education system on a larger scale.

However, teacher leaders who are invested in the future of our profession have a responsibility to step up and take our much-deserved seat at the table.

I would like to continue this discussion and invite other teacher leaders to share their experiences of joining the policy party.  What advice do you have to share?

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