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Appreciating the Value of Teacher-Led Advocacy

This piece was originally posted on the PIE Network

Historically, Teacher Appreciation Week has included cute coffee mugs stuffed with candy and treats for beloved teachers. Apple themed gift baskets, Starbucks cards, and hand made gifts from students and parents abound. I’m sure in many classrooms across the country, this will continue to be the case. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll never turn my nose at a thoughtful gift! However, after the year educators across the country have endured in the public sphere, these small tokens of appreciation can only scratch the surface of what teachers deserve after years of straddling both classroom and advocacy roles.

Teachers have been taking on advocacy roles for years, but it’s  only recently that the public is starting see it daily. In 1990, in Kentucky, where I teach, the General Assembly passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act. One major change under this legislation led to the creation of school-based decision-making councils. It allowed for shared leadership among administrators, teachers, and parents. Across the country teachers have been working on these types of school-based policy committees for years, building a strong foundation of local advocates.

Twenty-five years later in 2015, Kentucky educators and other stakeholders worked to create and publish the Kentucky Teacher Leadership Framework, which outlines five different ways that teachers act as experts and leaders within their classrooms, districts, and the state policy realm. For the teachers who have been working to reform the education system for years—or as the framework calls it “Leading to Professionalize Teaching”—they knew this was important work and engaged because it needed to happen. However, many teachers weren’t doing it because, for so long, this type of advocacy has been unattainable, other than the occasional contact with a legislator.

In the past 10 years, the creation of teacher leadership organizations like Teach Plus, Educators for Excellence, Educators for High Standards and many more has led to a wave of activated, trained, and mobilized educators on a mission to advocate for policies that promote adequately funded, student-centered, high-quality public education. What the public may see as a result of this work are the hordes of teachers wearing red and “calling in sick,” but what they don’t see are the groups of teachers passing around draft legislation on Google docs highlighted, annotated, and discussed at length while simultaneously preparing the week’s lesson plans. They don’t see the texts, emails, and phone calls exchanged between legislators and teachers. They don’t see the late night webinars and weekend trainings and the personal sacrifices that teachers make so that they can learn about policies impacting their students and how to work efficiently with policymakers.

Today, teacher-led advocacy is not optional, it’s one of the many hats that we wear as educators. Teacher Appreciation Week needs to be more than acknowledging your favorite teacher with an apple. It’s about recognizing, valuing, and accepting the expertise of our teachers in advocacy roles. Whether through creating formal titles and positions, celebrating teacher advocates of the month, or speaking out on behalf of educators who advocate, we need the continued support of the organizations who’ve empowered us to stick it out for the long haul. We can’t go backward and we won’t go back to our classrooms and close the door while drinking coffee out of our “Best Teacher Ever” mugs, because would we really be the best teacher ever if that’s what we did?

Kari teaches high school English at STEAM Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. She also serves as Senior Advisor of Teacher Outreach & Innovation for Educators for High Standards.