Teachers can positively influence education policy, we just need to use our teacher voice

It was the fall of 2020, and I gave my testimony about Zoom to the Texas State Board of Education. When I was done with my comments, I turned off my camera and sat silently in my class, not knowing how the board members received my words. This was the first time in many years that Texas revised its sex education standards, which would affect millions of Texas students for years to come. Texas Sex Education Standards make no mention of LGBTQIA+ identities, denying LGBTQIA+ students the relevant information their cisgender and heterosexual classmates receive.

As I waited to be fired, a board member turned on her microphone and said, “Mr. Carlisle, if you’d like to send me those recommendations in writing, I’d be happy to review them. I think your points are very well placed.” After sending her my suggested changes, she introduced these recommendations as an official change.

Although the board eventually voted against including LGBTQIA+ identities and health needs in the standards, I noticed a pattern among the witnesses: almost none were teachers in the classroom. This pattern is not unique in education policy. To be clear, this lack of testifying teachers was not the fault of educators. There are many structural barriers, both unintentional and intentional, that hinder teachers’ participation in policy making.

While elected officials not listening to teachers is not a new phenomenon, education is at a turning point. We have to be creative about how we get involved, because there is power in the classroom teachers who share their experiences from the classroom.

The problem

Far too often, the most important decisions about education are made by people without any classroom experience. Thinking you know what’s best for schools because you were once a student is like saying you can have open heart surgery because you saw it on Grey’s Anatomy. Take, for example, the Taskforce Teacher Shortage, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, where teachers make up only 2 of the 28 seats on the task force. Whatever the governor’s intent, you can’t adequately address the teacher shortage crisis when teachers have such a small voice in the process.

Clearly there is a mismatch between elected officials’ perceptions of what schools need and what teachers say are the most pressing issues. For example, after 26 states introduced bills restricting the way teachers discuss racism in the classroom, the country’s two largest teacher unions came together to publicly oppose such legislation. These bills emerged as many state governments pushed for schools to reopen amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite numerous studies indicating that teachers were more likely to leave the profession due to unsafe working conditions and burnout.

Unfortunately, many governing bodies such as state governments and state legislators make participation in the policy-making process nearly impossible for teachers. For example, signing up for public testimony involves navigating an intentionally cumbersome and byzantine registration process and in-person public hearings, usually during work hours. This requires teachers to seek replacements, miss class time, and travel to the state capital for a testimony. In addition, many school districts actively discourage teachers from advocating for controversial issues, leaving many teachers with a legitimate fear of losing their position if they publicly advocate for the needs of their students.

get creative

All teachers are familiar with this scenario: Your class has somehow become too loud and you need to use your teacher’s voice to be heard. To put it bluntly, if elected officials are not actively creating space for educators to be heard, it is when we use our teacher’s voice. So how can we ensure that the perspectives of educators end up in the policy sphere? Here are some methods:

  • Write an Op-Ed. Many news organizations create space for opinion editors or letters to publish to the editors. If they’re interested in publishing your piece, most news organizations have an editor who gives you two to three rounds of editing. Educators’ opinions can be particularly valuable because of their ability to influence public debate on a particular topic in education. In addition, many people with no classroom experience can learn first-hand from a published piece how an existing or proposed policy affects students, teachers, and schools.
  • Invite an elected official to your class. Most elected officials have no teaching experience, not even those elected to state and local school boards. In addition, many elected officials who attend schools use their experience as a justification for voting on specific policies. By inviting a school board member or legislator to your class, they witness the conditions created by the policy and can hear directly from students and teachers what their needs are. These visits have the potential to be transformative and can reduce the distance between decision makers and classrooms.

    For example, when a member of the Texas State Board of Education visited my class this year, he witnessed a discussion about how the contributions of women and scientists of color are often erased from science classrooms. The board member later shared with my principal that he was “blown away” by what my students were sharing, and he would take what he learned back to the board.

  • Testify at a public hearing. For almost any proposed policy, the government agency that implements the policy must provide an opportunity to respond publicly. While most public testimonials are limited to two or three minutes, this is one of the most powerful tools for change. Elected officials always share stories from their constituents about the impact of a policy. Because elected officials remember stories, sharing your experience in the classroom can make a difference.
  • Apply for an Education Policy Fellowship. Because getting involved in policy making can be so tricky to navigate, it often results in giving up before you’ve even started. However, education policy grants can potentially be the most impactful advocacy route. Not only do these policy grants work on your schedule as an educator, usually during the summer or evenings, but they have the added benefit of working with an organization that specializes in involving teachers in policy making.

But what about burnout?

Of course, the first reaction from most educators reading this is probably disbelief. On top of the ever-growing list of things teachers need to do, does this guy want us to do more? Teacher burnout is a valid concern, especially when 90% of educators say burnout is a serious problem. However, a recent piece by David Stieber underscores why we need to get involved: “Teachers are forced to work in systems that are not functioning properly, leaving teachers feeling demoralized, discouraged and overwhelmed.” The systems we work in are broken and we need to have teachers who play an important role in teaching about healing.

Plus, transforming your impact can be outside of the classroom. As the Center for Youth & Community Leadership in Education states, “Employing teachers as leaders and advocates can transform the teaching experience and address the critical problem of teacher dissatisfaction and shortages.” I experienced this transformation in how I saw my role as an educator, rekindling my passion for teaching when I felt lost in my profession.

Use your teacher’s voice

Many educators are natural advocates. In fact, most teachers I know say they became teachers because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of their students. However, for educators looking to expand their impact beyond the classroom, this requires a change in strategy. This doesn’t always mean taking the lead or being the strongest public speaker, but finding a way to use your gifts, tools, and strengths to create change.

This is a call to action for educators: use your voice. To overcome the numerous barriers that prevent us from being involved in government policy, we must use every instrument at our disposal to be heard.

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