By Rick Joseph
2015-16 Michigan Teacher of the Year
Teacher voice. We raise our voices for all kinds of reasons every day. Perhaps no one understands the power of voice to influence behavior and effect change better than classroom teachers.
I have reluctantly overcome familiar fears to raise my voice beyond the classroom. I try to address issues of education policy that affect all educators every day. In a system where legislators often make decisions shaped by political, monied interests, teacher voices are critical to the conversation. Educators have an authenticity that can only be acquired through daily work in schools. Who better to speak truth to power – especially regarding education – than teachers?
The stakes are high. The education of our children in public schools is core to our democracy. Equitable opportunities for all is an ideal that we educators uphold and defend on a daily basis.
Still, the doubts creep back in. They are familiar to all of us: No one really cares what you think. Who would listen to a teacher? Whatever you say won’t matter. Just shut up and do your job.
When these thoughts resurface, I quickly acknowledge and dismiss them. I tell myself that I owe it to my students and families to speak up, share my professional realities and raise my voice.
As busy as teachers are, how can we find time to speak up? The first thing we all can do is get to know our local legislators. When we meet or at least call our state senators and representatives, we establish a relationship with them. I learned that Jim Ellison and Marty Knollenberg – my state representative and senator – are real people. They have families and shared interests just like me. They truly want to improve the quality of education in the state of Michigan.
What they lack and admit that they need is the perspective of educators. They need a laser-focused teachers-eye view. This perspective is often valued more than the official position of the MEA, AFT, Michigan Department of Education and other education organizations. When Jim and Marty vote on education bills, I want the stories of my students running through their mind.
The Michigan State Teachers of the Year and Finalists have created the MI-STOY Network to leverage the influence of classroom teachers in more concentrated and directed ways. Our aim is to more consistently support the attempts of educators to share their stories and develop relationships with their legislators. We hope to maintain a more constant presence in the minds of decision-makers in Lansing on behalf of teachers, students, and families across the state.
The hardest part of maintaining relationships with legislators is finding time to call, meet with, and invite them to visit my classroom. I put a reminder in my phone to connect every couple of months. Relationships require time. I schedule it and do my best to act on my intentions. It’s challenging.
Nevertheless, contacting those who make decisions about public education is important and it matters. Jim and Marty appreciate my calls and the time I spend at their constituent coffee hours. They truly do. They’ve told me this in genuine and meaningful ways. This appreciation does not mean they always vote the way I want them to or that they deliver on vague promises. The legislative process is more complicated than that.
What matters is that they know me and I know them. Despite the power of the DeVos juggernaut, there are many people in Michigan politics who are resisting this agenda on behalf of strong, local public schools. We must always hope for better policy and more equitable governance. In this election year, today and every day we must raise our voice.
LEADING CHANGE is an occasional series on educator leadership, highlighting MEA members of every stripe who are stepping up and showing the way. Whether it’s advocating in the public arena, leading school improvement, or figuring out a new way to tackle a nagging problem, educators are innovators—and we all win when they lead the change.