Teacher leaders can find renewed hope in the old tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

No doubt you are familiar with the childhood tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

It begins with Goldilocks venturing away from home to an unknown place. What’s not clear in the story is why we find her wandering around alone in the forest.

Regardless, as the story goes there is a little fair-haired protagonist who unknowingly hazards a den belonging to a family of bears, natural flesh-eating antagonists. However, the storyteller’s personification of the bears makes it highly unlikely that Goldy will be exchanged for the porridge.

Recently, as I reread this story with my youngest granddaughter Callie, I gained new insight.

Perhaps the author’s purpose was more than entertaining children with the fantasy of talking domesticated bears. Perhaps it was to encourage taking risks, making leaps of faith. Life experiences often require leaps where the outcomes are not guaranteed.  Sometimes the result is overwhelming–simply too much at times to bear (no pun intended). At other times the outcome feels inadequate, doesn’t resemble our expectations. But, other times…boy, there are times when the outcome is worth the leap into the unknown.

Which just happens to aptly describe my experience when last month I leapt into the unknown, and invited Arizona State Representative Doug Coleman to spend a morning at my school, Highland Junior High, in Mesa. The invitation was extended as a part of  TYLTS (Take Your Legislator to School) week, a new statewide event that fosters meaningful and collaborative interactions between educators and their school’s legislative representatives.

Representative Cole spent the first two hours visiting several classrooms: English, social studies, science, mathematics, physical education and band. During the last hour, over lunch, we learned that he is a veteran teacher of 31 years who began his political career as a community activist.  He freely talked about the inequities that galvanized his move from education to politics in order to make things better.  He was also talked about policies around education issues and ways teachers can be more informed about the process.

My principal and I intended for this visit to be enlightening and authentic, not a three-hour show. We did not invite the press, although there is nothing wrong in this, and we may consider this option in the future. But for this very first meeting we intentionally avoided potential distractions or barriers that would make it difficult for us to get to know the man (not the position) who represents our school district. Still, we were not certain that three hours would be enough, but it was all we had.

We learned that if a visit is planned with the single focus for educators and policy makers to begin the process of understanding each other, three hours is just right.

In “Salt and Watermelon” I advocated for educators to build good working relationships with policy makers, based on my personal experience at an NCSL (National Conference of State Legislators) convening, described in the article. But planning such an opportunity for my school district and community was a huge unknown for me, and carried more risks than I could imagine, not the least of which is being misunderstood to promote one political candidate over another. Elections are in November.

Furthermore, as a member of the planning committee for TYLTS I knew we had no control over the outcome for any of the teachers, another even larger unknown. The best we could do is to identify teacher leaders who could and would embrace this chance to make a difference, and equip them to create positive, successful connections. The process of identifying and equipping took several months.

This summer, just before the launch of TYLTS, we encouraged teacher leaders to view this initial visit as the beginning of a marathon-like experience, rather than a sprint. It takes time, perseverance, mutual trust and some knowledge of edpolicy to build constructive working relationships that lead to meaningful and lasting change in teaching and learning.

Teacher leaders then, must think strategically about achievable outcomes for the initial visit with legislators or any other stakeholders.

Outcomes varied across the state. In a meeting later this month, the TYLTS committee will plan next steps based on what we have learned so far, and what we gather from teachers leaders. But from initial reports, some teachers enjoyed daylong events with their legislators, while others like me planned shorter and yet still impactful experiences.  A few policy-makers flat out refused invitations from teachers, while others visited schools for barely 20-minutes with the expressed thought, “I know all I need to know about education. Thank you very much.”

Nevertheless, TYLTS overall proved to be a great first step toward building partnerships, ones that both groups appear to want to maintain and strengthen. Indeed, I look forward to an opportunity for Representative Coleman to speak to my 8th grade students. I plan to seek his expert advice on the importance of framing messages to fit the needs of the target audience. I expect that his input will increase my students’ engagement as well as achievement, when they unfurl their campaigns next semester.

Taking risks, making leaps of faith provide no guarantees.  However, if we “seek first to understand, then to be understood” we can venture forth into unfamiliar experiences with a mindset much like Goldilocks’. She knew first hand that sometimes the result can be overwhelming, sometimes it can very disappointing. But sometimes, “it’s just right.” And that makes all the difference in the world.

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