Editor’s Note: Retired educator Claudia Swisher, who has taught everything from elementary school to college, is a National Board Certified Teacher, has earned her Master’s degree, and spent 39 years in the classroom, agreed to share her expertise and advice with us to help you begin your advocacy journey on the right foot. Here are her recommendations.
How To Advocate For Your Students And Public Education
By Claudia Swisher
Begin small…invite your state representative and senator for coffee. Introduce yourself. Tell them up-front that education is your issue. Share a story from your classroom. This initial meeting should be friendly and low-key. Ask your legislators about their key issues. Ask about their background. You are building a relationship here just like we do in the classroom. We are experts at building relationships. End this meeting on a friendly note, and volunteer to assist them in understanding how education policy plays out in your classroom.
Teachers build relationships. Teachers are also strong communicators. We can listen and understand deeper meanings; we can identify what’s not being said; we can use our words to inform and persuade. But we listen…and listen.
Once you’ve established a positive working relationship with your legislators, contact them about upcoming bills and ask their opinions. If you disagree, do so with respect. Present your concerns in a professional manner and volunteer to be a sounding board.
Visit the Capitol when you can. Get to know your legislators’ office assistants. Just like in schools, these folks wield the power. Introduce yourself, visit, listen. Each assistant is devoted to his or her boss and you can learn a lot about your legislators from their words.
Make appointments to visit your legislators in their office whenever possible…our teaching schedule and their schedule makes this difficult, which is why it’s easier for us to email and call after hours.
About those phone calls. Feel free to call after office hours and on the weekends. That’s when you have access to your own phone and can ethically advocate. Prepare your message, and make it short…identify yourself and tell your hometown. If you’re not in a particular legislator’s district, identify yourself as a concerned citizen and parent and educator. Express concern about a particular bill, and thank the legislator for his or her service.
Emails are probably our preferred communication. I like paper trails myself, so I save all my legislative communication in a file on my email account. It’s important, just like calling after hours with your personal phone, to email from your private account…not the school account. Our emails to our own legislators have the most power, but communicating to the members of a committee (House Common Education Committee or Senate Education Committee or House Appropriations and Budget Education Subcommittee) is a fast way to share concerns.
If you do email a full committee, or the full House or Senate, use the blind copy, BCC, on your ‘to’ line. That will save them plowing through all the names. State your issue, and your hope for their action…is it a yes vote or a no? Is it to stop a particular piece of legislation or advance one? Be informed…be assertive. You are a citizen and an advocate for your students and your profession. Be respectful. Think back on your skills of relationship-building. Burn no bridges.
While you’re relationship-building, you need to keep track of bills and their votes. If you see a bill discussed on social media, you can go to the Oklahoma Legislature site and look it up. You can click on the tab for votes and see who voted which way in committee and on the floor.
I think one thing we don’t do enough in our advocacy is thank our legislators…when you see a legislator has voted the way you’d hoped, send a fast email, or make a fast phone call. We all like to be thanked for our efforts, and we must not neglect that part of advocacy.
We will never have a legislator vote the way we want 100% of the time. There are forces at work and trade-offs going on all the time. Keep a mental note of how many times your legislators voted the way you hoped, thank them when they do, and decide if the balance is enough to earn your vote.
Vote! Here’s another place too many educators neglect their responsibility to advocate. Our vote is the tangible evidence of our faith and trust. When we don’t vote, we abdicate our job as advocate. We need to be the whole package – informed voter…education voter…informed advocate…relationship-builder…master communicator. That’s all.
But you’re not alone! #OklaEd has built a coalition. Oklahoma Education Journal (OEJ) is a splendid new voice in our work. There are Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags. There are blogs to read. You don’t have to do all the research yourself. You only need to subscribe to blogs, and join the groups. Let others do the research, then come behind, check legislation on the official website, and form your own opinions.
Share on your Facebook page, share on Twitter.
Here’s another form of advocacy: informing friends and family about the issues you care about. Share blogs, share votes. Share your emails to policy makers.
Join the conversation.