When I began my career as a teacher 25 years ago, it didn’t occur to me that there was much of a need to advocate for our schools. I took it for granted that everyone understood that strong public schools were the foundation of our country. It was also understood that teachers became teachers to help young people. Support for public education wasn’t a particularly partisan issue at that time.
Well, for better or for worse (OK…for worse), education has become a partisan issue. Education, for better or for worse (OK…for worse) is also a huge industry with billions of dollars attached to it. No one becomes a teacher because they want to have to advocate for resources or compete with other schools, other teachers, and politicians for programs and budgets, yet here we are. We are living in a time when those who have our boots on the ground of public education have to speak up to those in power. The narrative of public schools in our country is largely being told by those who haven’t spent much time in them. The tales of “carnage” in our schools and communities doesn’t match up with the heroic work that is happening in our schoolhouses. The idea that our schools are “failing” doesn’t match up with record graduation rates and record high parent satisfaction with schools; the idea that our schools are failing doesn’t account for increased diversity, poverty, and emphasis on standardized testing. The notion that teachers stand in the way of changing our schools for the better is laughable. There can be no doubt that the future of our schools is in the hands of the teachers who are willing to dedicate their lives to supporting the students they serve.
While we may not want to, we are in a time and place when those who care about public education must become advocates for this thing that we care about. Recently, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley opined that he thought the nominee for Secretary of Agriculture should have some dirt under his fingernails. I agree. I also believe that those in charge of our nation’s schools should have some chalk dust on their pants. Those of us who have experienced a little chalk dust on our pants need to tell our story. I began blogging over two years ago. Roughly 50 people read my first blog and it wasn’t meant to be particularly political (https://patrickjkearney.wordpress.com/). Smart people suggested that putting my thoughts down in writing was a good way to process my teaching philosophy. Those smart people were right; it has been a great outlet to express myself. Below are a few suggestions to those who are ready to start sharing their thoughts about education.
1) Tell YOUR Story.
I believe that it is important that the stories we tell about our schools are personal. Talk about schools through your lens. Share your passion with those who will listen.
2) Facts Do Matter
In an era when people seem to disagree about what a fact is, it is important that we use good data to inform our advocacy for schools. Much of the premise of those who want to upend public education rely on a “feeling” that creating a market of competitive schools will improve education. We have to answer those “feelings” with real data.
3) Show Empathy
We should recognize that not everyone is going to agree with our viewpoint and that’s OK. As we advocate for what we believe to be best for kids, we have to understand that everyone’s experience with schools is unique.
4) Go Straight to the Source
The most effective advocacy is a phone call to those in power. Call federal and state officials and tell them what you think; it is surprisingly easy and satisfying. When you email you legislator, be sure to tell them where you are from. If you are using Twitter, be sure to connect to their Twitter handle. All of these different communications to our legislators add up.
5) Be Strong
It can be hard to be an educator advocating for education. We are often accused of only looking out for our own interests. School administrators don’t always love educators who stick their necks out on political issues. Our issues aren’t always at the top of everyone’s agenda. With that being said, the issue of public education is too important for us to remain silent. Our voices have to part of this conversation at the local and national level. The reason we care about public education is because we care about young people. In many ways we represent their voices.
These are challenging times for public schools. Those of us who care about our local schools can’t afford to be silent. We have to tell our story. In the words of the musical Hamilton, we have to put ourselves “In the Room Where it Happens.” Be confident, be brave, and tell our story.