Education Opinion

More Tips on Fine-Tuning Our Teacher Advocacy

By Megan M. Allen — October 11, 2016 6 min read
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Yesterday I shared some tips for making our experiences as teacher advocates more about teaching than telling as I reflected on one of my advocacy fails, and today we have part two. I’d love to hear what tips you have to share as well...let’s build our collective expertise!

  1. Know your audience. There are so many things to think about when taking our students into consideration as we plan learning experiences in the classroom. The same goes for our advocacy work. We must research who they are, what issues are important to them, and how they have voted. Also keep in mind that by the time everyone graduates from high school, the average American has spent about 15,000 hours in the classroom as a learner. Based loosely on the idea of the apprenticeship of observation coined by Dan Lortie in Schoolteacher, most people feel like they have some expertise about the classroom because they have spent so many hours as a learner. This impacts perception. And thinking about perception, think about where everyone in a conversation is coming from. We have a thousand ways of viewing the same situation, with background knowledge and experience shaping our vantage points. Another great point is to know the key issues on policymakers’ minds. Check out this piece by Celine Coggins of Teach Plus to read more on the 3 key pressures that every policymaker is thinking about. So the long and short of it: Know your audience and think about how that impacts your message.
  2. Know yourself and be authentic. When I first starting teaching I thought I had to be like the super star teacher across the hall. She was amazingly effective and kept strict order to her classroom. She was very serious in her teaching. I quickly came to the realization that this was not me. I had to figure out who I was as a teacher and not try to replicate anyone else, for my silly/serious ratio is pretty skewed as both a teacher and a person. Just like identity in the classroom, I needed to think about who I am in the advocacy world. I have a warped sense of humor and am really heartfelt, and I constantly nerd out on research. That’s who I am in both worlds, and when I learned to embrace those qualities, my authentic self came through and helped me connect with all learners: both children and adult.
  3. Think of advocacy like a lesson plan. You are building out a learning experience. What’s the objective? What do you want your audience to walk away with? And how are you going to get them there and facilitate their learning? Plan these things out ahead of time and be purposeful in how you lay it all out. I also think about all the decisions teachers have made in regards to a lesson plan. There are things that are evident when you watch the lesson, and there are things that are implicit. One activity that I’ve done with teacher leaders is to watch a video of a testimony and then jot down the noticings: What are you noticing that is working, both implicit and explicit? A t-chart is a great note taking tool for this. Then discussion follows. I’ve used this video of my sequestration testimony to tease out what works and what doesn’t work in advocacy...not as a model, but as fodder for conversation.
  4. It must be student-focused. Another mistake I see a lot with teacher advocacy is that we talk about the impact on teachers, but not always the impact on students. To those of us in education, this is one in the same. You can’t have one without the other...the two are really inseparable. But to those outside of education, student impact speaks volumes and discussing teacher impact can actually cause people to shut down and put up their walls. So when advocating, speak first about student impact. Speak for your students. How will this impact their lives or their learning?
  5. Remember the curse of knowledge. I had an opportunity three years ago to testify to Congress about the sequester: Massive across the board spending cuts that would greatly impact Title 1 funding. The night before the testimony I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues and she asked a question that I still hear. How will the Congressmen know what I know? I see and work with my students every day, but how can they get a glimpse into what that is like? Who those beautiful little people are in my classroom? There is something lingering over all of us called the Curse of Knowledge (which is not just something that sounds like it was invented by J.K. Rowling!). It states that we have a hard time realizing that not everyone knows the same things we know. Not everyone knows those faces we see every day in our classrooms, and we forget that they don’t have that knowledge. So we must do our part to help others understand what it is like to be a student in our classroom. We must not take for granted that they know what a classroom ecosystem is like. We must be aware of the curse of knowledge.
  6. Emotions are good. But keep ‘em under control. So a huge piece of forming relationship and being authentic is emotional appeal. It’s key for building connection with your audience. But there is a point where it can be too much. Ever try to talk to a toddler about something that is upsetting them when they are crying? Emotions cover up the message. My first advocating experience (mentioned in yesterday’s post) had a similar hiccup. I was so overcome when thinking about my students that I wept. Hard and embarrasingly. And I think those tears covered up my message. Brene Brown calls this “smash and grab” vulnerability in her book Daring Greatly. It does the opposite of what emotional connection can do: It actually scares off your audience. So don’t be afraid to speak or write from your heart, but keep those emotions in check. Make the emotional appeal, but don’t let the emotions be your core message.
  7. Be strategic. Rehearse. Practice. This is super geeky confession, but I practice, rehearse, and rethink my lessons constantly. I think about the experience from a learner’s perspective, I think about ways I could make their learning experience even more exciting and meaningful. I practice and rehearse timing: I try to predict moments when student’s might have their “aha” moments. I want to keep my students on their toes with every story, class discussion, and activity. When creating learning experiences for advocacy, the same thing applies. Think through their journey. Rehearse. Be strategic. That time spent on the front end will pay off in dividends at the tail end.
  8. Know your expertise. I think few teachers realize the vast amount of teacher expertise they truly hold--expertise in learning, students, pedagogy, and other complexities of a classroom ecosystem. We need to embrace that expertise and know what we have to offer in policy circles. And then I’ll refer to the work of Celine Coggins again--she made a great point in a speech this summer at the Total Teacher Project in New Hampshire. Do you know who is the perfect education policy expert? The perfect education policy expert is not one person. It’s a team of two: the teacher, with the classroom and education expertise, and the policymaker, with the expertise of the ins and outs of the system. It’s all about teamwork, baby!

What other tips do you have to share?

Photos courtesy of Tara Hunt, Valerie Kensky, Thomas Angermann, AwesomeSA

The opinions expressed in An Edugeek’s Guide to K-12 Practice and Policy are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.