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What We Are Missing as Teacher Advocates: Teaching vs. Telling

By Megan M. Allen — October 10, 2016 4 min read

Let’s start with a question. Grab a pencil and some scratch paper, then jot down your thinking to the following question.

What is the difference between telling and teaching?

Some responses I’ve seen with teachers when asked this very question include that telling is sharing knowledge with others, and it’s one way. It’s the giving of information. On the other hand, teaching is developing knowledge in others, which is more two way, recursive, involves reflection, and takes a long time. It’s a lot more nuanced. And it’s a lot harder.

Time for question number two.

When teachers advocate and work with policymakers, which mode do we tend to operate in: Telling or teaching?

In my research and past experiences, I think we tend to operate in telling mode when advocating. Then we turn around afterwards, confused about why whoever we were talking to “didn’t get it.” I equate this to telling (not teaching) a kid that 3+1=4 and then scratching our heads when they can’t explain how they got their answer. It’s because we are telling, not teaching. And there is a huge difference between the two, both in and out of our classrooms.

Let’s start with my telling-as-advocacy nonexample:

About eight years ago, I had my first opportunity to testify. To advocate. To tell my story and make a difference.

I was one of three teachers asked by the Florida Education Association (FEA) to head to Tallahassee to testify against Senate Bill 6 (It was such a horrific bill, the bill number is permanently ingrained on my brain). I was there with two of my illustrious teacher sheroes: Peggy Brookins, a then engineering teacher and administrator who is now the president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and Cathy Boehme, a former science teacher who is now a legislative specialist with the FEA. We were there to make suggestions regarding Florida’s changes for teaching evaluations, and the area I was zoning in on was the Value Added Models (VAMs) and their potential impact on students at high needs schools.

So I had two minutes to tell my story. Two minutes to make it count. So I went all in.

And it bombed. Big time.

I’ve thought about this so much the past few years, and I’ve landed on one big takeaway. It was a simple and common mistake.

I thought about my first testimony as a telling versus teaching experience, so it flopped.

From reflecting on my nonexample and having experienced some growth with my advocacy sea legs over the past eight years, I’ve teased out a few ways we can make our advocacy work more about teaching than telling. Today and tomorrow, I’ll share some of those tips. I’d also love to hear ways you are thinking about the nuances of advocacy as we build our collective ideas together.

Here’s how we can start thinking of advocacy as teaching versus telling:


  1. Think about the idea of developing knowledge in others versus the sharing of knowledge. When we tell we share our knowledge, which is not necessarily the best teaching practice. I think of my first year of teaching, when I was a proud user of algorithms. I would tell my students the algorithm to solve a certain math problem, then they could apply the formula to solve future problems. Yep, I told them how to solve it and thought that was teaching. But they never really understand the concepts much deeper than the procedure. They had a surface-level understanding versus the deep understanding that they would have developed if they had dug in and grappled with the math themselves, then formed their own understanding. Just as our teaching must be based in constructivism, so must our advocacy work. We must think of ways to truly develop understanding, versus just telling the quick tricks to solve a problem one way.
  2. Teaching takes time. Lots of it. Learning is a process. It’s not instantaneous, no matter how much we would like it to be! There are so many considerations in teaching, and we must think about those same things in advocacy. How can we help others understand concepts? How can we foresee misconceptions ahead of time? How can we provide opportunities for those we are working with to form their own conclusions and construct their own understanding, versus just hearing our take on how they should be thinking about something?
  3. It must be a two-way conversation. Telling is one way, teaching and conversations are (or should be) two-way. If I had thought about my two-minute testimony as the beginning of a conversation versus a two-minute “Come to Jesus” session (as we say in the south), I think my outcome would have been different. What if I thought about this as the open door to future dialog? Or if I had planted the seeds of curiosity that would lead to future questions and conversation? Learning has to be two-way, and this applies to our advocacy work as well. It’s all about an ongoing conversation between two learners versus on person telling the learning to the learner.
  4. Relationship matters. There is little teaching and learning that can happen without a solid relationship built first. Or for that matter, little in life. There must be trust in order for learning and the grappling that comes with it to make itself known. The same thing goes for our advocacy work. We must think about developing a relationship with the people we are working with, on both sides of the aisle. One of the best ways to do this is to start developing those relationships when there is no issue at hand. There’s no pressure and you can get to the person, not just their stance on certain topics. And do you know the best advocacy tool to do this? Drumroll please.... a cup of coffee.

This is part one of a two-part post, with the next seven tips coming tomorrow. I encourage you to share your tips as well. How are you thinking about advocacy as teaching versus telling?

Photo courtesy of Tomaki Sono.

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.

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