Last semester, I was preparing a lecture on the politics of teachers, and I decided to incorporate an exercise, where I went around and asked all of my undergraduate students: “That teacher who impacted you the most, what made that teacher so effective?” As students responded aloud, I filled the white board with a constellation of intangibles: “She was caring.” “He took a personal interest in me.” “She held high expectations.” The unifying theme was that the great teachers are inspiring leaders. In fact, they sound just like the kind of inspiring leaders we need trying to solve the nation’s greatest problems.
Teachers have realized this.
It is no secret that teachers are now running for office at a record rate. According to Education Week reporting, more than 170 teachers ran for state legislatures in 2018. In yesterday’s election, at least 41 of those candidates won their races. There are also stories of people like Jahana Hayes—the 2016 National Teacher of the Year who just won her race to represent Connecticut in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, I think it’s important to depart from the louder debate about a turnout surge signaling a backlash to a fear-mongering president, Democratic gains that fell short of a major “blue wave,” and the success of progressive female candidates. Instead, let’s place context on a less-discussed but equally important group of new public officials: teachers.
This isn’t the first time that teachers have sought political office, but this is an extremely crucial political moment. As a political scientist, I offer a few strategies that teachers-turned-legislators need to pursue.
• Position yourself for re-election. Other than making policy, the most important thing for an elected official to do is to remain an elected official. Newly elected teachers must begin thinking about re-election early and often. The downside of this has been the constant fundraising needed to run campaigns, but people and votes are what decide electoral contests. Teachers are uniquely equipped to maintain and grow community ties. This has to be at the forefront of how they govern.
• Target agenda change. As teachers position themselves for successful re-election, their seniority will eventually breed opportunities to assume leadership on key committees and subcommittees. As teachers, committee positions related to education are the natural first step, but they shouldn’t stop there. We also need audacious leadership in the chairperson positions of those committees. The committees are where bills get reshaped into more viable policy proposals. We need bold and compassionate leadership spearheading that process.
• Create a pipeline. Crafting quality policy proposals is but half of the battle. In order to ensure that teachers can actually increase the quality and quantity of government commitment to public education, teachers must begin the work of opening up leadership pipelines. We need legislative bodies that behave like our best teachers, not newly elected teachers who behave like previous members of legislative bodies. In order to change the look and focus of our decisionmaking bodies, elected teachers have to pave the way for others to come behind them.
• Make education the leading issue. The last strategy is the most obvious: Teachers have to make education the leading issue in American politics. This requires strategically reframing education as an issue that is both central to the strength of the economy, but also set apart from it. Studies routinely show that voters make decisions at the ballot box based on the conditions of the economy. Our leaders need to push us to reimagine education as an issue inseparable from how we’ll address inequality, increase economic mobility, and improve the overall performance of our economy.
However, according to polling this year by Gallup, the economy-related concerns are at the lowest since the turn of the 21st century. Economic anxiety has been replaced with “government dissatisfaction” and a list of factors like “immigration” and “unifying the country” that place social divides at the center. Meanwhile, only 3 percent of respondents rank education as the most important non-economic issue facing the country. To the extent that other issues are gaining national attention, education needs to be the leading non-economic issue. In particular, we should think of education as a way to create unity in times of division.
Making education the top national concern in voter’s minds will require constant messaging from teachers reminding us of its importance. It will also require the teachers across cities and states to coordinate under the shared goal of disseminating that message.
During that class exercise, one of my students made a comment that many of us who are fortunate enough to fill prestigious positions often utter: “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my teachers.”
This inspiring batch of newly elected teachers have an opportunity to change the course of our politics and to give that statement an even larger meaning.