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Teacher Advocacy: Teachers Speaking Up

Through Advocacy Day — and Other Grassroots Activities — We Can Make a Difference in Literacy Education
NCTE Council Chronicle January 2010

Teachers don’t typically enter their profession for political reasons — such as education their political representatives on literacy issues or influencing national policy. Nevertheless, numerous teachers accomplish these very aims every April as part of NCTE’s Literacy Education Advocacy Day (www.ncte.org/action/advocacyday).

Sixty teachers from 22 states attended the last Advocacy Day (April 23, 2009), and spoke with their legislators and legislative aids. Advocacy Day, which was inaugurated in the mid 1990s, is one of many ways in which NCTE has focused on speaking to politicians and policy makers about the importance of teaching literacy.

At the 2009 event, Barbara Cambridge, director of NCTE’s Washington office, and Stacey Novelli, a legislative associate with experience on Capitol Hill, gave the teachers a packet of information about NCTE’s platform and talking points for their meetings with legislators. Teachers asked their representatives to support a resolution to name October 20, 2009, the National Day on Writing and urged their representatives to support a comprehensive literacy bill that a coalition of literacy advocacy groups, including NCTE, was putting forth.

Teachers on the Hill

For many attendees it was the first time they had met with a legislator and been able to talk about how legislation impacts their classrooms and their students.

When she’d been asked to serve as elementary representative-at-large on the Executive Committee Becky McCraw, a school-based literacy coach in South Carolina knew she would be a voice for teachers, but had no idea she’d be expected to take that voice to D.C. or even to her own state capitol of Columbia.

“I tend not to be political and would have avoided Advocacy Day if I could have. I’m glad I couldn’t,” she says, adding that, “for far too long teachers have reacted to things rather than being proactive and helping those that make decisions understand the challenges that teachers face.”

For McCraw, Advocacy Day was an eye opener.

“This experience has changed how I feel about advocacy. I’m much more likely to speak out and take an issue to the school board or write a letter,” she says. “I’ll never look at things coming out of D.C. in the same way. I understand the process better having walked the streets, going from building to building.”

The general public gets the impression from the media that politicians don’t want you to come see them, but in Clarissa West-White’s experience that was not the case.

“They didn’t seem as far off and unapproachable as I thought,” she says.

West-White, professor of English at Florida A & M University and editor of SLATE Update, the newsletter of NCTE’s grassroots advocacy network, had visited on Advocacy Day in 2008. Her representatives had voted on several things she’d advocated for, and so she returned in 2009 to thank them.

“A few people can really impact policy,” she says. “I think most people don’t think it’s that simple.”

Susan Houser, who has been a classroom teacher for her entire 25-year career, first became involved in advocacy because of the negative impact No Child Left Behind legislation was having on her classroom. Houser was the mid-level representative-at-large on the Governance subcommittee and had been involved in developing the legislative platform.

“Having taught as many years as I have, I’ve found NCLB has had more effect on me in the classroom than anything else,” she says. “That’s what motivated me to ask to be on the Governance Committee. It’s important to me that we stand up for what we know is good teaching.”

It turns out that many legislators are hungry to hear from people like Houser.

“When I spoke and said I’d been in the classroom 25 years, one legislator put his pen down and looked at me,” says Houser. “I’m getting ready to sign a bill that would do away totally with NCLB, what do you think of that?’ And he listened to me. That experience is what charges me forward. If you get a few minutes sometimes you can make your points.”

Hugh Burns, professor of English and rhetoric at Texas Woman’s University, was excited to attend Advocacy Day. Although Burns, an NCTE member since 1974, had been on Capitol Hill many years ago as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, this was the first time he advocated for NCTE.

“It was just exciting to be at the table, talking the talk and walking the walk for NCTE,” says Burns, who, with his wife, Mary, a substitute teacher, met for 30 minutes with their congressman Michael Burgess. “The voices of the people who are doing the work in the classroom are the most important that legislators need to hear,” he says. “Our leadership needs to know what really happens in the classrooms of America.”

Burns says that, while the Federal government’s role in educational initiatives is relatively small, it does have a role to play.

“It sets the tone, it sets the stage,” he says.

And Burns’s visit did make a difference. In his meeting Burns explained the draft resolution about National Day On Writing and asked Burgess to become a co-sponsor. Later Burns heard that Burgess had done so.

State Level Advocacy

The irony is the very people who need to be heard — classroom teachers — are often the least able to travel to their state capital or to Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, those who did attend Advocacy Day returned home charged up and ready to encourage others to speak up at the state and local level.

“Advocacy efforts don’t have to be on a grand scale,” agrees McCraw. “If you can make a difference in literacy locally, even in your own classroom, that impacts the state, which impacts the nation.”

McCraw says SLATE has been helpful reminding her to send a letter and to talk about Advocacy Day. It provides a reminder that you don’t have to go to Washington to have a voice.

“We are urging our members to meet the representatives where they are, right in their own districts,” says West-White.

One strategy that may soon give Florida teachers a greater voice is a state version of Advocacy Day — a plan developed by members of the Florida Council of Teachers of English after their 2009 trip to D.C. They intend to develop a platform and play a role in writing legislation.

“What’s great is we can go back to NCTE for position statements. They’ve already done the research and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” says West-White.

“We will try to do [in Tallahassee] what we learned to do when we went to D.C.,” says Joan Kaywell, professor of English education at the University of South Florida and executive director of FCTE. Kaywell says over the years NCTE members have learned not to complain, but to make one or two points or requests at their visits. Also, they have learned that stories and examples resonate deeply with legislators.

“We have this idea that politicians are so far removed from people,” says Kaywell, “but when you go to D.C. you recognize that they’re just people and we can get their attention.”

West-White is working especially hard to get students of English education involved in advocacy efforts.

“I tell my classes about advocacy and I practice what I preach about the need to advocate,” she says. “I tell them this is something very real, it’s not just philosophy or pedagogy.”

Burns also came home inspired to ramp up his advocacy efforts in his community.

“I came back charged up,” he says. “We had a National Day on Writing here on campus, ‘mashed up’ some videos, linked to our blog and we had people sign up for the National Gallery in our courses.”

All this grew out of the energy he brought back from D.C., says Burns.

And, as Kaywell says, “We’ve got a long way to go, but Advocacy Day has given me hope. We are doing something, instead of sitting and doing nothing.”

D.C. Office

NCTE is helping teachers’ voices be heard, not only through Advocacy Day, but also by staffing an office in Washington, D.C. That office, which was established in 2005, enables NCTE to develop stronger relationships with legislators and especially to build coalitions with other associations with shared goals, such as teachers of social sciences, math and other literacy groups.

“NCTE realized it had something to offer to educational stakeholders beyond its membership,” says Cambridge. “Although in the past we served our members by focusing inward, we realized we could also help by focusing outward and participating in policy discussions. We wanted to be seen by those on the Hill as a source of good information and to help inform policy discussions.”

Cambridge says that several times there has been a policy issue that comes up on Capitol Hill and she has been able to quickly survey members to get their read on a particular policy. “What’s your classroom experience; how does this policy impact you in the classroom?” She then takes that information, analyzes it and puts it before legislators.

“It’s very hard for a legislator to do that in a systematic way, so how does that legislator get to those voices?” says Cambridge. “We can do that kind of thing.”

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