Conon Gillis wants his students to know that voting is their civic responsibility. To drive that message home, he’s running for state legislature.
In 2016, Gillis, who teaches government and history at Neosho High School in Missouri, had spent the fall semester getting his students engaged in the upcoming election—and it was working. Students were watching the presidential debates and were paying attention, despite being too young to vote.
But when Gillis, 29, printed off a sample ballot so they could see what it looks like, students were shocked that in the state-level races, there was consistently one name in each spot. His students began to wonder: What is the point of voting if one person is automatically going to win?
“Everything I had taught them and everything they already were excited about was gone in an instant,” Gillis said. “That hurt.”
Gillis kept thinking about their reactions, and later, he looked through Missouri’s secretary of state website and noticed that people had been running unopposed in his area—which is 30 minutes from Joplin and located on the western edge of the state—for the last decade-plus.
“It just made me really angry,” he said. “I’ve taught all of these students, and I’ve gotten them to think democracy is important, and I’ve gotten them to buy into the importance of voting—it’s almost like I’m feeding them lies when there’s only one name on the ballot.”
He decided to file to run for state Senate in the district that encompasses Neosho High School, so his students would see his campaign. Gillis, who is running as a Green Party candidate, filed when a Republican state representative was the only contender for the seat, but a Democrat has since filed as well. (The seat is currently held by a Republican, who is unable to run for re-election because of term limits.)
Gillis is one of nearly 160 current classroom teachers who have filed to run for their state legislatures this year. According to an analysis by Education Week, 100 have advanced past the primary elections. Candidates have attributed this unprecedented wave of teacher activism to a growing sense of frustration among educators that led to the six statewide walkouts and protests in the spring.
Gillis said improving education is a main part of his platform—with goals that include reducing the emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing, expanding a state scholarship program, and putting more state resources toward school counselors, special education programs, and English-as-a-second-language programs.
Civics in the Classroom
Gillis isn’t the only one trying to bring civics lessons to life for his students—Education Week has found two dozen social studies teachers around the country who are running for office. While Gillis is prohibited by the school from talking about his political beliefs with his students, he can share with them the experience of campaigning. For example, he has talked about the process of filing to run and what it was like to participate in a candidate forum.
When students took a test on their knowledge of the Missouri constitution, they knew the minimum age requirement for state Senate right off the bat: 30 years old. Gillis will turn 30 about a week before the election, which he says makes him the youngest person to run for state Senate in Missouri’s history.
And win or lose, Gillis said he thinks the campaign will help him bring the real world into the classroom. He’s already met several legislators—including his Republican opponent—who have offered to come and talk to his students.
Outside of the classroom, several current and former students have volunteered on Gillis’ campaign. Emily Evans, who is 17 and a senior at Neosho High School, said she has marched in a parade and staffed booths at festivals, passing out cards and buttons that say “Vote for Gillis.” She had Gillis as a government teacher last year, and said he was one of her favorite teachers. So when it came time for Evans to pick a community service project for the National Honor Society, she wanted to volunteer with his campaign.
“This is my first time doing anything in politics. ... I’ve never known anyone who is running for office,” she said. “I’ve always been kind of politically engaged, I watch the news, [but] I’ve never been very invested where I volunteered to help a specific political [campaign]. But it’s an experience I’ve really enjoyed.”
Gillis said he doesn’t ask current students to volunteer—but students have found his campaign Facebook page, which occasionally posts requests for volunteers.
And there’s a lot of support for Gillis at school, Evans said, adding that several of her friends have volunteered as well.
“I won’t be able to vote in November, but I can help support him [this way],” she said, adding that she has been inspired by how Gillis and his staff are running the campaign. “They want to help people—it’s not just about winning or getting money.”
Still, Gillis said, he’s a government teacher at heart: When students tell him they’re going to vote for him, he tells them to do their homework first. “I encourage [them] to look up every candidate,” he said.