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Q & A: Get to Know the 2016 SJA Finalists - Amanda Kail

Amanda Kail is an English Language Learner teacher in Nashville. We caught up with her between lobby actions and activism to talk about the launch of the Coalition Advocating for Public Education (CAPE). Since its inception, CAPE has mobilized educators to advocate before state and local decision makers. Through the work of CAPE and local justice organizations, a school board committee, on which Amada serves as the teacher representative, was created dedicated to ending the school to prison pipeline. The NEA team had a wide ranging conversation that covered her early experiences as an activist, the challenges and opportunities educators have in public schools today and what keeps her inspired. Below we give you some out-takes of the conversation.

NEA: Who inspired you to become an activist?

Amanda: I have been involved with social justice activism since I was in high school. My mother was a minster and a part of the liberation theology movement. My first real experience with social justice was going with her to Northern Wisconsin where white supremacists had been harassing the Ojibwa. Our group acted as human shields against an angry white mob that was shouting racial slurs and waving nooses. Since then I have never forgotten that racism remains an active force in America.

I guess you could say I come from a long line of activists, my grandmother, Pat Geyer was a teacher and proud union organizer for more than 30 years. She grew up in a poor and isolated part of rural Michigan, and she never really lost her “backwoods” grit, not even after she managed to travel the world. Not only was she well known for speaking her mind, but she also wasn’t afraid to challenge the politics of her day. She publically defied the unwritten rules of segregation in the town where she taught. She created education and career programs for girls who got pregnant in high school who would have otherwise been expelled. She had little patience for the politically powerful elites who thought they were better than poor people, and she was known to have told off a senator or two in her time. She was a fierce advocate for the most vulnerable for her whole life. When she died, her funeral was filled to overflowing by all of the people she had helped. I hope I can be even half the teacher activist that she was.

NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?

Seeing my EL students tested to death and feeling powerless to stop it pushed me into education politics. One day, one of my top students, an Egyptian who had attended an advanced-level school in Cairo, told me, “I used to be smart, but look at my test scores -- now I am stupid.” To top it off, my students’ low test scores were being used to fire teachers and threaten my school with charter take-over.

I decided I had to resign. I told my administrators that I was done at the end of the year and would leave teaching for good. Ironically, this decision turned out to be what kept me in the profession. I felt free to speak out publically. I attended a lobbying day for teachers led by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), where I met other education activists. I found myself speaking in front of the school board, reporters, and state legislators. I also started meeting with a small group of teachers informally to talk about what we could do to advocate for our students and our profession. These conversations, along with the support of TEA and MNEA, led to the creation of the Coalition Advocating for Public Education (CAPE) and the “Use Your Teacher Voice” campaign.

NEA: Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

Amanda: If public education is the foundation of democracy, then we must protect that foundation. I am dedicated to protecting public schools because they are one of the few places where people really get to experience diversity. Public schools re-enact the central tenets of our democracy because they are sites where all children have equal status and equal opportunity.

Teachers, more than any other group, see first-hand how poverty, oppression, and violence impact our community’s young people. We should be front and center, advocating for their needs and pushing for the curriculum, pedagogy, and services that will make our students thrive, not only academically, but in life.

NEA: What role do students play in movement building?

Amanda: Students can be agents of change on their own. Here in Tennessee, we have seen students organize around testing and also around ways to stop violence. It is imperative that education activists act as strong allies for students who choose to speak out. I am excited that in my work organizing around the equity in school discipline in Nashville, I get to work with students. We know that we are doing our job well when our students can stand up with confidence and articulate their own beliefs.

NEA: What is the role personal stories play in SJ activism?

Amanda: While it is very hard to change people’s political opinions, personal stories have the power to overcome a kneejerk reaction. This is why our “Use Your Teacher Voice” campaign has been so successful. We got teachers to speak at the school board about how testing was impacting their classrooms, and we managed to get the whole board, which previously had been deeply divided, to vote unanimously in our favor. The board passed a resolution requesting that the state exclude test scores from teacher evaluations for this year; they also made all district tests optional.

The stories also brought more teachers into the movement. Many teachers know that there are big problems at their school, but they do not see these problems as larger, institutional issues. When word got out that there were teachers lined up to speak at the board, teachers started tuning in to listen, and even better, they started realizing they were not alone.

NEA: What are the most important elements of movement building to you?

Amanda: Understanding how your movement connects to the bigger issues is key. Education activists who do not see how over-reliance on standardized testing or charter schools are the products of racism and poverty will fail to create lasting change because any success they achieve will be too narrowly felt to be noticed.

Another important element is to create campaigns that focus on visible, carefully targeted action. To use two very useful clichés, successful organizers have to move beyond preaching to the choir and find ways to speak truth to power. Movements grow when they show that they are actually creating change, not just talking about it.

A final thing I have come to understand, especially in creating a coalition, is that organizations and individuals have different strengths. The problems we are trying to fix are so big that it will really take all of us working together to create change.

NEA: What is the most creative way you have found to engage people on your issue?

Amanda: The slogan “Use Your Teacher Voice!” has gotten a lot of attention. People love the double-entendre, and it reminds teachers that they really are powerful. We have gotten requests from organizers around the country asking if they can use it too. Organizing groups of teachers to speak at the school board with that slogan has been relatively easy to organize and exciting.

NEA: What is the biggest issue facing public education today?

Amanda: High-stakes testing is how the so-called “reform movement” has gotten away with everything from privatizing public schools, to defending “zero-tolerance” discipline policies, to stripping teachers to any sort of professional authority.

We face serious challenges, a lot of the big players in the reform movement profit directly from implementing its policies. The false crisis they created through their testing has made the public believe that public schools are “failing.” Schools that serve the poor, immigrants, or communities of color, have been particularly hard hit and are the focus of the reform movement. These communities are far more likely to lose local control of their schools and have to reorganize all of their resources to focus on testing. Our most vulnerable students don’t get the social and emotional support they need, or a meaningful curriculum, and as a result they act out more, drop out more and continue a vicious cycle which feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

This is why high-stakes testing is a social justice issue, and why restoring the teacher “voice” is critical to making decision-makers and the general public listen.

NEA: What song gets you fired up to do this work?

Amanda: “I Hear Them All” by Old Crow Medicine Show really speaks to me.

Also, I’m an old punk rocker, so sometimes I still drag out Bikini Kill’s first album and blast “Double Dare Ya” in my car. So many issues about the lack of respect for teachers as professionals are about gender; since teaching is traditionally seen as women’s work, the authority of our profession is devalued. Sometimes Kathleen Hanna’s voice calling for “revolution grrl-style now!” is exactly what I need.

NEA: What message would you most want to tell educator activists just starting out?

Amanda: Never ever be afraid or ashamed to be a professional educator. Let it be your foundation. Even if you are a beginning teacher, you still have more classroom experience than most of the people who are in charge of public education. It’s hard and complicated work, and people will try to minimize that and treat you like you aren’t smart enough to know anything. Don’t let them. If you can find ways to teach all the kids in your classroom, then you can change the world.


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