Federal Opinion

What Newly Elected Teachers Should Do Next

By Jonathan E. Collins — November 07, 2018 4 min read
Then-Democratic candidate for congress Jahana Hayes appears at a campaign rally in Hartford, Conn., last month.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

See Also: Over 170 Teachers Are Running for State Office. Here’s What We Know About Them

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.

Related Tags:


English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Top Federal Adviser on Puerto Rico's Schools Declares: 'We Have to Build Trust'
Chris Soto heads an Education Department team providing technical assistance and support for the U.S. territory's public schools.
4 min read
Martin G. Brumbaugh School kindergarten teacher Nydsy Santiago teaches her students under a gazebo at a municipal athletic park in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 4, 2021.
Martin G. Brumbaugh School kindergarten teacher Nydsy Santiago teaches her students under a gazebo at a municipal athletic park in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 4, 2021.
Carlos Giusti/AP
Federal Schools Could Count Nonbinary Students Under Biden Proposal
The Civil Rights Data Collection for this school year could also revive questions about inexperienced teachers and preschool discipline.
6 min read
Image of a form with male and female checkboxes.
Federal 'Parents' Bill of Rights' Underscores Furor Over Curriculum and Transparency in Schools
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's bill highlights how education issues like critical race theory will likely stay in the national political spotlight.
7 min read
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., says "it's time to give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats."
Patrick Semansky/AP
Federal Opinion It’s Not Just the NSBA That’s Out of Touch. There’s a Bigger Problem
Those who influence educational policy or practice would do well to care about what parents and the public actually want.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty