No one makes the case for supporting public schools like educators do.
It’s because of what you bring into the room with you: Your years of experience; your connections to your community; and that you dedicated your career to serving the common good by helping to nurture and grow our students.
Most state legislatures are back in session this month, and most face serious budget deficits due to 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.
After all, most legislators have never worked in education. As Arizona Education Association-Retired member Luci Messing says, “We are the experts in our field.”
Messing has been forming relationships with her state lawmakers for decades, getting her start as an active member of the Arizona Education Association (AEA). For 31 years, she taught mostly physical education and health, and coached sports.
After retiring in 2011, Messing became one of NEA’s powerhouse advocates for public education, using her coaching skills to help train new activists as AEA’s political advocacy chair.
“I always start trainings by reminding members that the people who represent us are just people. You can start building a relationship by introducing yourself and asking if there is anything that you can do for them,” Messing says.
Most important, she advises members to reach out on a regular basis—not only when there is a problem or you need something. Make sure your communications are personal, with details about your life or career, and share accurate information provided by your state or local association.
“Then they trust us and will come to us if they have a question about public education or pensions or whatever the issue is,” Messing says.
In a typical year, Messing helps spearhead a major AEA lobby day. This time last year, roughly 50 AEA-Retired members had appointments with legislators. Many of the lawmakers even stopped by AEA’s lunch meeting to speak with the group.
Those in-person activities are on hold due to the pandemic, but educators can still form these critical relationships, says Ray McInerney, a state legislative specialist at NEA who offers this idea: At the start of the legislative session, record a one-minute introduction video for the people who represent you, saying who you are, where you worked as an educator, and what your role was. “Just let them know you look forward to working with them,” McInerney suggests.
By allowing your legislator to hear your voice and see your face, that short video can make a lasting impression. “It doesn’t have to be perfect or polished, it just needs to be genuine,” he says.
Then, follow up with additional short videos, emails, or phone calls to explain how the lawmakers’ proposals would affect students and educators at the school where you worked.
“Humanizing the issue will make it real for the legislator and make them want to intervene,” McInerny says.
Making it work
In terms of political advocacy, Tanis Henderson, a school counselor in the northern Minnesota town of Grand Rapids, 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 that union meetings are taking place over Zoom, she is seeing more rural members in attendance, and she hopes that participation carries into legislative activism.
But whether the work is in-person or virtual, there are always educators who think they just don’t know enough about politics to engage.
“Sometimes educators are intimidated by politics. I tell them it’s just like our students learning a new skill—we all start out with lots to learn,” says retired high school social studies teacher and Education Minnesota Retired member Joan Beaver, who became president of her local in 2002.
In terms of facts and figures and talking points on issues that affect public schools, that’s the work your state affiliate’s government relations staff does for you, says NEA’s McInerney. The greatest contribution you can make is to add your personal story.
“I think sometimes teachers think that legislators just know all this, what our job is like, but they really don’t,” says Beaver. She suggests thinking of very specific stories that illustrate the issue you are discussing, whether it’s school funding or mental health needs.
When your elected leaders take action on behalf of public schools, give them positive feedback, Messing advises. “I always follow up after meeting with a lawmaker to thank them. And I’m a proponent of thanking lawmakers for their votes,” she says, adding that she usually sends a quick email to follow up. “They should know that even if we ask them tough questions, we support them when they do what’s right.”
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. Be accurate so your lawmakers will see you as a trusted source of information. Rely on your state affiliate for accurate data.
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 former Arkansas Education Association-Retired president, 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.
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.”
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,” says Chesterfield. “NEA is a great training ground for participatory democracy.