No one makes the case for supporting public schools like educators do.
That’s because of what you bring into the room with you: Your years of experience, your passion for the job, and your dedication to serving the common good and nurturing your students’ growth.
Most state legislatures are back in session in January, so now is the time to make sure your students’ needs are on the agenda. Many states face serious budget deficits due to ongoing economic turmoil wrought by the pandemic. But deep cuts to education funding and the loss of educator jobs will only hurt our students, who will likely need additional mental health services, more attention made possible by smaller classes, and other supports.
In the COVID-19 era, it’s more important than ever that state lawmakers hear directly from educators. You’re the leading experts on what students in public schools need.
Angela F. Avery, who oversees the preschool education program at Fairview Elementary School, in Camden, Ark., says communicating with state legislators really comes down to one thing: It’s all about relationships.
“Our state legislators are really visible in our community, and members of our local spend time talking to them when they are back in our district,” Avery says. She starts by introducing herself as she would to anyone else: as a parent and an educator.
“I ask for their thoughts on education, and I always promote the importance of early childhood education to our community,” she says. “Then, when I need to let my state leaders know what is going on, I can send an email or make a call. I have their phone numbers saved in my cell phone,” she says.
She has even turned to her state representative for help when a family had trouble enrolling in Medicaid.
Avery laid the groundwork for these relationships in person at social events, voter registration drives, and church, and by volunteering for campaigns—activities that are largely on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But we can still form these critical relationships, says Ray McInerney, a state legislative specialist at NEA who offers this idea: “Record a one-minute introduction video for the people who represent you, saying who you are and what you teach. Just let them know you look forward to working with them,” McInerney suggests. “It doesn’t have to be perfect or polished, it just needs to be genuine.”
Then follow up with additional short videos, emails, or phone calls to explain how the lawmakers’ proposals would affect your classroom or your school.
“They need to know what increasing your class size by three or four or five more students means for the educator,” says McInerney. Find an example or incident from your classroom that will help them understand why you’re asking for more school counselors or more teacher’s aide hours.
NEA-Retired member Luci Messing, a lifelong activist from Arizona, agrees that ongoing communication is critical. Although the in-person training and lobby days she coordinates for Arizona Education Association members are all videoconferences for now, she says the fundamentals are the same.
“These people who represent us are just people,” says Messing. “You can start building a relationship by introducing yourself and asking if there’s anything you can do for them.”
Her top advice is to reach out on a regular basis—not just when there is a problem. And when your elected leaders take action on behalf of public schools, give them positive feedback. “I’m a proponent of thanking lawmakers for their votes,” says Messing, who usually relies on email for quick follow-ups. “They should know that even if we ask them tough questions, we support them when they do what’s right.”
Making it work
Tanis Henderson, a school counselor in the northern Minnesota town of Grand Rapids, has long advocated for her state legislators to add more mental health supports in public schools.
“We’ve always been in a unique position as school counselors to provide supports for our students that they might not receive otherwise,” she says.
But Minnesota has one of the country’s worst ratios of counselors to students, because the state does not have a mandate that every student should have access to one.
Since the pandemic, there is more need than ever for school counselors. “We’re experiencing a collective trauma, and we don’t even know yet all the ways that children will need extra supports,” Henderson says. She hears from students who are isolated at home and others who don’t feel safe at school. Some are in families under immense stress due to lost jobs, high-risk occupations, and illness.
But when it comes to advocacy, Henderson has found a silver lining in social distancing restrictions: State legislators’ new willingness to host town halls and meetings over Zoom means that more educators from remote locations can participate.
“In a typical year, I would have to drive more than six hours round trip for anything in-person at the Capitol,” she says. Now she’s seeing stronger participation from all over the state, in her work with Education Minnesota and the Minnesota School Counselors Association, where she serves as president.
Henderson says that in her experience, whether she’s talking to a school board member or a state legislator, it’s all about establishing relationships and trust.
“Do your homework—know who you are talking to before you introduce yourself. Then focus on being able to tell your story briefly but with impact,” she advises.
Don’t lose heart if the people who currently represent you don’t share all of your views, she advises. “You may not see eye-to-eye, but look for the connecting points that will help drive your advocacy forward,” Henderson says.
On the flip side, don’t assume that legislators you consider allies know where you stand on a given issue. “Even those who tend to agree with us need to keep hearing from us,” she says.
Tips for Connecting With Lawmakers
Introduce yourself to new legislators, and share your story. Tell a brief anecdote to help them see what it’s like to teach without the resources students need, and be sure to let lawmakers know how they can help.
Reach out early and often. Ask lawmakers to vote for bills that will boost public schools and against those that harm them.
Stick to a few key facts. Too much data is overwhelming. Rely on your state affiliate for accurate data, so your lawmakers will see you as a trusted source of information.
Face-to-face meetings might not be possible this
session. So consider sending a one-minute video to your lawmaker before the session begins. Join virtual meetings and town halls, and send photos with your emails.
Follow up with a thank-you when legislators stand up for public education. Educators know the power of positive feedback!
Know your power—and build on it
Arkansas state Sen. Linda Chesterfield is a strong proponent of educator advocacy. She is a retired teacher of 30 years and the former president of Arkansas Education Association-Retired, and she put in countless hours of advocacy work before she took office herself.
“Teachers and support professionals still have the trust and the commitment from the community. You must use that platform to do great things,” says Chesterfield, who is serving her first term in the state Senate after three terms in the state House of Representatives.
She says state leaders simply must hear from educators to make informed decisions. And she says politically engaged educators set an example for their fellow union members and give other educators a reason to join. The stronger your local and state associations are and the stronger presence you have in the legislative process, the more you can do collectively to advocate for public schools.
Her top tip: Turn to your association for the tools and training you need to become politically engaged. “The training that I received through NEA has been invaluable in pursuing this career that I’ve had for almost a decade,” she says. “NEA is a great training ground for participatory democracy.”
Chesterfield encourages educators who have engaged in state and local politics to consider running for office themselves. “You have a natural base as an educator, because you’ve taught for years and you’ve affected people’s lives,” she says.
If you’re thinking about running for office, check out See Educators Run, NEA’s candidate training program.