Guest blogger Jon Alfuth is a public school teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. He is a teacher leader in Stand for Children, part of the Teach Plus national editorial board and blogs regularly at bluffcityed.com. He is a also member of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE).
Part way into my second year teaching, I was struggling. I felt like I was giving my kids everything I had each and every day. But I was also constantly frustrated by a system that constrained me from moving my teaching to the next level. All too frequently this system dictated what I was to teach, when I had to teach it and what program I had to use. My solution at the time was to accept the system as an unchangeable reality and just do the best I could for my kids.
It was around that time that I met a Memphis teacher named Brittany Clark who changed my perspective on what it means to be a truly transformational educator. Brittany was a phenomenal teacher, but she also advocated for her kids outside the classroom. She participated as a Teach Plus policy fellow, worked with the district to provide a teacher voice on new policies and advocated for her students with elected officials both at the local and state level. When I met her, I realized that while I thought I was doing everything I could for my kids, I could be doing so much more. I didn’t have to accept the system as an unchangeable reality. I could take action and work towards fixing the parts that I felt were broken.
I’m continually inspired by colleagues like Brittany who embrace the dual role of teacher and advocate because I’ve realized it’s not enough to just be a great teacher. So much of what we are able to do on a daily basis is dictated by the system we work within. But when the system isn’t the best it can be, we have a choice. We can put our heads down and make do, or we can chose to speak out and advocate for change. Only when we do the later are we truly doing all we can for our kids.
When teachers make the choice to advocate for their students, we should be confident in our authority to do so. Research suggests that teachers have the greatest in-class impact on a child’s education. This gives our opinion an enormous amount of credibility. Not only that, but teachers experience firsthand the collective impact of our education system on those within it. We know what policies help our students and which ones hinder their progress. With that in mind, who else is better qualified to comment on those policies but a teacher?
Once we make the choice to advocate, there are many different degrees to which teachers can act on behalf of their children. Sometimes being an advocate simply means calling or emailing someone with influence. And in my experience, when teachers speak out in these small ways, policy makers take action. For example, I had the opportunity to work with a number of other teachers and parents through Stand for Children on a campaign last month to ensure adequate funding for our schools in Shelby County. Collectively, Stand’s members made over 130 phone calls, sent in 30 hand written letters and gathered over 1600 signatures, which helped ensure the effort’s success. The individual effort was small, but the collective impact was huge.
Using social media is another great way for teachers to advocate for our children. When we post a story on Facebook or through Twitter, people listen because of the credibility that comes with our role as educators. Additionally, elected officials and policy makers continue to operate through these platforms in ever increasing numbers. As such, they offer a great way to interact directly with decision makers.
We are also working in a time when the opportunity for educators to directly lead the discussion on education policy has never been better. Advocacy groups such as Teach Plus and non-profits like the Gates Foundation offer opportunities for teachers to not only meet with policy makers but to actively mold and shape new policies. These are fantastic opportunities for anyone looking to get more involved.
It’s vital for educators everywhere to use our credibility to actively advocate for the students in our charge. We must be great teachers, but in an ever changing policy environment, that is no longer enough. Each and every educator should consider it their duty not only to teach their children but to advocate for changes to the system so we can do our best for our students each and every day. There are many ways for us to get involved on whatever scale we believe to be most appropriate. But however we chose to do so, it’s absolutely vital that we make our voice heard. When we see that something is broken, if we don’t speak up, who will?