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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Teacher Leadership is Advocacy

By Guest Blogger — September 01, 2017 4 min read
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This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we’ve got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Rounding us out this week is Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association.

When I became a Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the US Department of Education, I had a lot of questions from colleagues. “How can you work with those people?” “Are you supporting Race to the Top?” I even had a few pointed comments about being a sell-out!

Madeline Will wrote yesterday about fellows working at the Department. I was so proud of Melody Arabo, Patrick Kelly, Sean McComb, and Anna Baldwin; like so many other Fellows I have met, they are passionate educators who never leave their teacher voice at the door. Patrick summed it up so well when he said, “If you’re not willing to say the things that might be unpopular with the current administration, then you have to sit back and assess whether the fellowship has value in the first place.”

As educators, we advocate in small ways—assisting with needed social services, writing letters of recommendation—but we are also called to advocate more broadly and publicly. We have the responsibility to advocate for changes to the system, competitive wages, our profession, our communities and the students and families we serve.

Advocacy is hard; if it wasn’t, everyone would do it. Advocating generally means coming up against the status quo, providing what is missing, or having some kind of David and Goliath moment.

When I was a young teacher, I spoke out at a school board meeting. I was concerned about the rising level of violence in our community (a young woman had been murdered over a parking space) and how this violence was impacting our classrooms. I was speaking out for my students and my colleagues and, naively, I thought others would agree and begin to address the problem.

The retribution was swift and set me back on my heels. It was like pointing out the emperor had no clothes—it wasn’t the violence that was the problem, it was the audacious teacher who had the gall to bring it up in public. It reached the point where the local newspaper felt compelled to write an editorial in my defense.

That was a powerful lesson for me and, honestly, quite hurtful. But it also eventually led to me being placed on a committee to look at student discipline; we worked with the school board to put in place major proactive changes that are still in place 20 years later.

There is a continuum of advocacy. My uncle General Alfred Gruenther led a life that exemplified that continuum. As a military officer, he understood the need to fight tyranny aggressively and even violently. When he returned from WWII he fought in another way when he refused to buy a home in a segregated neighborhood. As president of the American Red Cross, he assisted people suffering from disasters. That’s a continuum of advocacy.

Educators must be mindful that we can’t just teach about advocacy, we must allow students and others to experience it. One day my students were reading the newspaper and began talking about a man who was homeless and living in a dog house. They were sympathizing with how tough it would be and I challenged them: “What do you want to do about it?” This led to their organizing and running a school wide fundraising project that earned over $600 that they donated to the Visiting Nurses Association. They experienced advocacy—while also putting learning to action in math, promotion, and running a small business!

At Avalon School—a teacher-led, public charter school in St. Paul, Minnesota—students and teachers are co-collaborators. Their website states, “All members of Avalon’s student body are welcome and encouraged to be involved in school-wide decision-making. All students have the opportunity to influence and support the way things function within our school.” When I visited several years ago, the students commented on the power of not only being able to make decisions for themselves and their school, but how powerful it was to be in a school led by teachers who were the actual decision makers.

Finally, advocacy is not just stating what you are against, but also what you are for. I don’t think you need to always have the immediate solution when you point out a problem, but you at least need to be of the mindset that you are willing to be a part of the solution. I often tell people, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu!” But a seat at the table means that you agree to listen for understanding, not just listen to respond or defend your point of view.

This leads back to working as a Teaching Fellow. The first time I said, “This is wrong, you shouldn’t do this...” I was immediately asked, “Well then, what should we do?” I realized that my role as a Fellow wasn’t just to point out what was wrong; it was to bring a solution to the table that would be supported by other educators and meet the needs of students. I couldn’t just raise my voice—I had to voice a solution.

The young Pakistani advocate Malala Yousafzai said, “There’s a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.”

Now is the time for educators to raises their voices as advocates and stand up or our silence will be heard as agreement.

—Maddie Fennell

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.