I have a vague memory of a time when I didn’t spend much time thinking about advocacy. During the early days of my teaching career I don’t think I spent much time concerning myself with what it meant to be an advocate for my profession, my content area or for education in general. I was too busy just trying to do my job. Twenty five years later I have come to believe that advocacy is a vital part of my job.
Advocacy can mean many things and come in many different forms. I believe that it is important to be an advocate for my students, an advocate for my school district, an advocate for the importance of education, an advocate for educators and an advocate for music education. If I’m not willing to advocate for those things (all of which I believe in passionately) then I’m not fully doing my job.
I have been blessed to find myself in teaching positions and organizations in which my advocacy has been accepted (or at least tolerated). I know that this isn’t always the case. I know that there are teachers and others who feel that their advocacy will not be embraced by their school leaders or by their colleagues. With that being said, I think it is very important that we find ways to advocate for the things we believe strongly in. This isn’t to say that every teacher needs to spend each and every day battling windmills, but I do think that we must use our voices individually and collectively to stand up for the things we believe are important.
In my home state of Iowa our governor has proposed to increase supplemental state aid (once known as allowable growth) for education only 1.25% next year. This is quite simply inadequate. In my own school (a successful suburban high school) we have seen significant increases in class sizes, teacher workloads increased considerably and we are looking even more challenging conditions next year based on the governor’s proposal. I know that my colleagues in challenging urban schools or smaller rural schools are facing even more difficult challenges as they are asked to do more with less resources. Iowa is nowhere near the top half of the country in per pupil spending, spending nearly $1600 less than the national average and our legislators refuse to follow a simple law that asks them to set spending within 30 days of the governor’s budget proposal. So, why are our legislators unresponsive? I believe it is because we, as educators, don’t always feel comfortable advocating for our schools. This is partially because we are seen as advocating for our own self-interest. Legislators and others will charge that we are only looking to fatten our own pockets. We need to be willing to say that that is simply hogwash. While teachers want fair compensation, what we really want is what is best for the students that we work with every day. We want to be able to have staffing in our buildings that allows for appropriate attention to every student. We want resources that allow every student access to the best possible curriculum. That’s really what we want for our schools. Yet, the recent rates of growth set by the state of Iowa have not allowed schools to maintain adequate staffing or resources. Those of us who teach day to day in our schools know that we aren’t able to keep up.
How do we make things better? In my opinion we have to become advocates in a new and bold way. In the face of legislators and others who are willing to call us greedy and lazy we must respond by telling our truth. We know how much our resources have been slashed in the last several years based on inadequate funding from the state. We can only tell our truth and if we don’t do it no one else will. We must focus our advocacy on what is good for our students. Every increase in class sizes and every situation in which we can’t offer as many options for students is bad for them. Those that don’t support adequate school funding constantly want to make the debate appear to be about what teachers want for themselves. The debate must be framed about what is good for students. Again, if we don’t fight for our students who will? Businesses and special interests of all kinds pay millions of dollars to lobby our legislators. Who lobbies for our young people? The answer has to be us. We have to be their advocates and we can’t allow our voices to be silent.
Budget projections show that revenues in the state of Iowa should increase by at least 5% for the next fiscal year. The governor has stated that his own office requires an increase of 9.1% to operate in the coming year. Is there any way that Iowa is better off spending their money in the governor’s office than in our schools? Iowa has the funds to begin to adequately fund our schools (or at least maintain current programming), but someone has to insist that it becomes a priority.
There is not one way to be an advocate. You can contact a legislator, you can talk to your neighbors, you can attend meetings or you can be obnoxious on social media (a personal favorite). I recently did some advocacy for a music education cause. The hard work on the issue had been done by others but the project was stuck in the mud. I inserted myself in situation with some testy messages to some state leaders and the project eventually got unstuck. A colleague heard some of the story of my advocacy and asked if it was accurate to say that my willingness to be a bit of a nuisance to those in power had been effective. I had to say that it was, but it was only successful because there were others doing all sorts of other kinds of advocacy around me. It takes all of us playing our own unique role to make things happen. If we don’t stand up and fight for what we believe in we will lose ground.
Be heard. It’s OK to be in a minority and your opinion doesn’t have to be popular. Maybe most importantly it’s important to make sure that we make sure that those who might not other have a voice are heard because of what we know to be true.