Everyone wants to tell teachers how to do their job, and everyone seems to know more about schools and teaching than teachers do. Needless to say, this is frustrating. I doubt that many patients tell their dentist how to do a root canal because they have had them done before. Why do so many people assume that they know more about teaching than teachers do? Don’t accept those assumptions. Use your own writing and speaking skills. Be proud that you are a teacher who specializes in the teaching and learning of language. Be heard! Let your authentic, informed teaching voices be heard!
Write letters to the editor. Be sure to check the requirements of each newspaper or magazine, since they often have word limits. Include personal stories. They always get the attention of readers. Challenge yourself to write as clearly and concisely as possible. This is a good exercise for us, since we teach writing and expect our own students to master these skills.
Contact lawmakers in writing. It is easy to reach out to members of congress now via their websites or through social media like Twitter and Facebook. Old-fashioned letters often garner a greater level of attention. Use aps like Countable or Resistbot to easily reach your legislators. Countable provides summaries of legislation and other initiatives moving through congress and allows you to easily contact your members of congress. Resist Bot will let you FAX your legislators.
Call or visit your legislators. Develop and use a script when you call. Stick to the script and do not ramble. If you call, be patient. It could take you some time to get through to the office. If you get the answering service, hang on if you can and wait to speak to an aide. If you cannot get through, leave a succinct voicemail. It is better than nothing, and it will be logged in. If you can, try to carve out some time in your busy schedule to visit legislative offices in person. Taking a colleague with you is helpful, since it is reassuring to team with another person, and you can keep each other focused. When you call or visit, you generally will talk to a staff member rather than the legislator. This is fine. Remember, staff members are required to log in all calls and visits and report your concerns to the legislator. Whether you call or visit, focus on one point, and keep reinforcing it. Include personal stories in your commentary during calls and visits. Stories are easily remembered. We are English teachers and know narrative is powerful.
I have learned in my own advocacy training sessions that legislators pay most attention to personal visits and phone calls. Actual letters come next, followed by email. I have heard that they disregard all those “sign your name” e-petitions. You are a busy person, so do what makes sense for you, even if it is just an email or tweet. Even brief contacts serve a useful purpose. They are recorded. Remember that most legislators are hungry for data about their constituents and their views. My recent experience with a telephone town hall organized by the legislator who represents my district in the House of Representatives unintentionally demonstrated the power of phone calls. At one point in the telephone town hall, since he refuses to host in-person town halls, he got rather testy and irritable saying, “So you people can stop calling my office. My aides have better work to do.” Really? And who gave you your job, sir? Needless to say, the calling continued. We had justifiably hit a nerve!
Finally, take care of yourself! Attending to your own needs is vital to your physical and mental health. I have been a teacher for more than 40 years, and I recognize from experience that teachers’ work is intellectually and emotionally demanding enough without adding on the time it takes to engage in political activism. Huddle for comfort, reassurance, safety, and increased power. Cultivate your friends and colleagues who share your concerns. Take time to enjoy a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, and meal together. Engage in rituals that bring you joy. Find time for yourself, your family, and your friends. Carve out time to do things you enjoy.
I retired a year ago, and I have been spending an extraordinary amount of time volunteering as a political activist. It is not exactly what I expected to do in retirement, though I always aimed to continue to advocate for teachers. My “job” has morphed. I no longer find myself restricted by an academic schedule. I have no sets of papers to grade or classes and courses to prepare. Now I belong to citizens’ organizations. I rejoined NEA and NJEA after thirty years of working in higher education and have become active in retired educators groups. I remain committed to my favorite professional organizations, NCTE and NJCTE. While I no longer have the responsibilities of a working educator, I still have to take care of myself. An early morning class at the gym works for me, as do yoga and long walks in beautiful places and writing I enjoy. Find what delights you. The people and activities you love keep you refreshed and positive.
It is too easy to become trapped in despair and hopelessness in our current political climate, which leads to the loss of our locus of control. We owe it to ourselves and others to take time to awaken to a new dawn within ourselves, become prepared, make our voices heard, and care for ourselves so we can continue our mission as educators and citizens in service to others. Action is healing.
Nelson, J.L. & Stanley, W.B. Protecting the right to teach and learn (2001). In Daly, J.K., Schall, P.L., and Skeele, R. (Eds.) Protecting the Right to Teach and Learn: Power Politics, and Public Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
Written by Pat Schall, NJCTE Board Member
Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English