It was the Fall of 2020, and I delivered my testimony on Zoom to the Texas State Board of Education. As I finished my comments, I turned off my camera and sat silently in my classroom, unsure of how the board members received my words. This was the first time in many years that Texas was revising its sex education standards, which would impact millions of students in Texas for many years. The Texas sex education standards make no mention of LGBTQIA+ identities, therefore denying LGBTQIA+ students the relevant information their cisgender and heterosexual classmates receive.
As I waited to be dismissed, a board member turned on her mic and said, “Mr. Carlisle, if you would please send me those recommendations in writing, I would love to take a look at them. I think your points are very well placed.” Then, after sending her my proposed changes, she introduced these recommendations as an official amendment.
Although the board ultimately voted against including LGBTQIA+ identities and health needs in the standards, I noticed a pattern amongst the testifiers: almost none were classroom teachers. This pattern is not unique in education policy spaces. To be clear, this lack of teachers testifying was not the fault of educators. There are numerous structural barriers, both unintentional and intentional, that impede the participation of teachers in policymaking.
While elected officials failing to listen to teachers is not a new phenomenon, education is at a turning point. We have to get creative about how we get involved because there is power in the classroom teachers sharing their experiences from the classroom.
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 perform open-heart surgery because you watched it on Grey’s Anatomy. Take, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Teacher Shortage Taskforce, where teachers make up only 2 of the 28 seats on the task force. Whatever the Governor’s intention, you cannot adequately address the teaching shortage crisis when teachers have such a small voice in the process.
Clearly, there is a disconnect between elected officials’ perception of what schools need and what teachers say are the most pressing issues. For example, after 26 states introduced bills limiting how teachers discuss racism in the classroom, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions came together to publicly oppose such legislation. These bills emerged as many state governments pushed to reopen schools amidst the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite numerous surveys indicating that teachers were more likely to leave the profession due to unsafe working conditions and burnout.
Unfortunately, many governing bodies such as State Boards of Education and State Legislatures make participating in the policy-making process nearly impossible for teachers. For example, signing up for public testimony requires navigating an intentionally cumbersome and byzantine registration process and in-person public hearings typically during working hours. This requires teachers to find substitutes, miss instructional time, and travel to the state capital for testimony. Furthermore, many school districts actively discourage teachers from advocating on controversial issues, leading many teachers to have a justified fear of losing their position if they publicly advocate for the needs of their students.
All educators are familiar with this scenario: your classroom has somehow gotten too loud, and you need to use your teacher voice to be heard. To put it bluntly, if elected officials won’t actively create space for educators to be heard, this is when we use our teacher’s voice. How then can we ensure educator perspectives makes it into the policy sphere? Here are some methods:
- Write an Op-Ed. Many news organizations create space for opinion editorials or letters to publish to the editor. If they are interested in publishing your piece, most news organizations will have an editor provide you with two to three rounds of edits. Op-eds from educators can be particularly valuable because of their ability to impact the public discourse around a particular issue in education. In addition, having a published piece allows many people without classroom experience to hear firsthand how an existing or proposed policy impacts students, teachers, and schools.
Invite an elected official to your classroom. Most elected officials don’t have teaching experience, even those elected to state and local school boards. Furthermore, many elected officials who visit schools use their experience as justification for how they vote on specific policies. By inviting a school board member or legislator to your classroom, they witness the conditions created by policies and can hear directly from students and teachers what their needs are. These visits have the potential to be transformative and can shrink the distance between decision-makers and classrooms.
For example, when a Texas State Board of Education member visited my classroom this year, he witnessed a discussion of 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 shared, and he would take what he learned back to the board with him.
- Testify at a public hearing. For almost any proposed policy, the government entity introducing the policy must provide an opportunity for public comment. While most public testimony is 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 to a teaching policy fellowship. Because getting involved in policy-making can be so tricky to navigate, this often results in giving up before even getting started. However, teaching policy fellowships can potentially be the most impactful route for advocacy. Not only do these policy fellowships work around your schedule as an educator, happening typically during the summer or evenings, but they have the added benefit of working with an organization that specializes in getting teachers involved in policy-making.
But What About Burnout?
To be sure, the first reaction of most educators reading this is likely incredulity. On top of the ever-mounting list of things teachers must do, this guy wants 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 have to get involved: “Teachers are forced to operate in systems that aren’t functioning properly, which makes teachers feel demoralized, discouraged, and overwhelmed.” The systems in which we work are broken, and we must have teachers playing a significant role in healing education.
Furthermore, expanding your impact beyond the classroom can be transformational. As the Center for Youth & Community Leadership in Education asserts, “engaging teachers as leaders and advocates can transform the teaching experience and address the critical issue of teacher dissatisfaction and shortages.” I experienced this transformation in how I viewed my role as an educator, which reignited my passion for teaching when I felt lost in my profession.
Use Your Teacher Voice
Many educators are advocates by nature. In fact, most teachers I know say they became a teacher because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of their students. For educators looking to expand their impact beyond the classroom, however, this requires a change in strategy. This does not always mean you have to lead the charge or be the strongest public speaker, but find a way to use your gifts, tools, and strengths to create change.
This is a call to action for teachers: use your voice. To overcome the numerous barriers preventing us from being involved in public policy, we need to use every tool at our disposal to be heard.