By: Lauren Jewett, NBCT (special education teacher/New Orleans, LA)
My mother grew up as one of nine children. Her younger brother, Aunt Cheryl, was born with Down Syndrome. When Cheryl was born in 1962, doctors told my grandparents that Cheryl would only live to be three years old and therefore the family should consider institutionalizing her. My grandparents categorically refused this recommendation and Cheryl continued to live at home. My Aunt Cheryl passed away in November 2021, just months before her 60th birthday. She was deeply loved and loved by my family until her last day on Earth.
The strong support and nurturing environment my aunt has enjoyed throughout her life is a testament to the power of advocacy and what can happen when someone lives in close daily proximity to it. This approach to advocacy is one that I take in my own career. After graduating from college, I accepted a job as a special education teacher in New Orleans. Three years later, I started working at a school where I was responsible for directing and coordinating all special education services. Due to a lack of trained and certified special education teachers at the school, I also taught students with IEPs, and since the school did not have a full-time social worker or counselor, I also coordinated student mental health services. Although I didn’t have a deep understanding of the larger systemic failures in my school’s community at the time, I knew there was something deeply troubling and unfair about its lack of resources.
I remember a conversation with my headteacher in the underutilized storage/library room of our post-Katrina FEMA modular campus. He told me that we would not solve school problems or the needs of our school with a social work approach. Just as my grandparents were unwilling to accept the doctor’s recommendations about my aunt, I was unwilling to accept my headteacher’s reasoning that whole child approaches and the social work had no place in the development and academic success of a child. This conversation activated a dormant plea that was smoldering within me; one who is committed to ensuring that humanity and the dignity of people are always at the heart of choices and decisions. Before leaving at the end of the school year, I advocated with other relevant staff members to ensure that on-site mental health providers were hired for the following school year.
Part of being a teacher leader means being an advocate and using our professional expertise to effect transformative change. Here are seven tips for teachers to engage in advocacy work:
- Know, practice and refine your story: Part of being a teacher leader and advocate is sharing your story, especially with those who can embrace policy change. Our stories are what bind us together, and they have the ability to change hearts and minds.
- Identify your passions and network with those who share them: Know your unique passions and interests in education, cultivate them and become an expert. Network with or become a member of organizations related to your passions and use those connections as springboards to dive deeper into advocacy work.
- Research and stay up to date on education policies and legislation: This will help you to be well-versed in trends and statistics and to know how policies and legislation affect you, your colleagues and your students. It is also important to understand how you can work with your representatives on education-related bills.
- Attend meetings on education issues: Most education meetings that affect the day-to-day realities of teachers will be local or state school board meetings, state legislative committee meetings or hearings, or local community meetings. Educators can also participate in focus groups, town halls, district or superintendent advisory boards, and standards/curriculum committees. In school buildings, teachers can also advocate as members of their grade level teams, IEP teams, RtI and MTSS teams, interdisciplinary teams, and subject area/content teams.
- Identify and stay in touch with elected officials and decision makers: Hosting meetings, writing letters and engaging directly on social media are all concrete ways to show policy makers that you know and care about education.
- Vote: Vote in every election, not just every four years during the presidential cycle. Many important education decisions are made by candidates running for local, city, and state offices. When you go to the polls to vote, make sure you’ve done your homework on the issues and candidates on the ballot.
- Write editorials, blogs and articles: Writing op-eds for the local newspaper and contributing to education blogs help ensure teachers’ voices and perspectives are heard.
It has been said that those closest to pain should be closest to power. Teachers are in their classrooms every day, experiencing the painful and beautiful realities of policies that are all too often made without their input. Advocacy is a balm for the policy implementation deficit. By advocating, teachers ensure they are getting closer to power and bringing their stories of joy and pain to policy-making spaces and decision-making tables.