As a growing network of advocates recognizes the immense value of incorporating educators in the policymaking process, the landscape of opportunities for educators to share their perspectives is expanding and diversifying.
In recent years, more than a dozen state and national organizations have launched programs to engage educators, and more are appearing each year.
We’ve shared past examples of key policy wins where educators have played crucial roles: advising, building support, and even leading efforts to pass policies that affect their students and their profession. Of course, the process of engaging with teachers and principals at the schoolhouse begins long before any decisions are made at the statehouse.
In a new PIE Network report, advocates working across 29 states provided details on the educator voice opportunities they’ve built, ranging from policy fellowships and advisory councils to grassroots organizing and programs for Black male educators. Advocates also shared insight into the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Based on their reflections, here are advocates’ top five tips for successfully engaging educators in advocacy.
Involve Educators from the Start
For many organizations, seeking input on teacher quality issues serves as a natural inroad to educator voice work. However, advocates are increasingly involving educators as true co-developers in a variety of issue areas, including school finance, testing, career education, and more.
No matter the topic, it’s most effective to engage with educators from the very beginning of the policymaking process.
“Practitioners must be among the first to weigh in on policies that affect their classrooms and communities, not an afterthought or sought for ‘final review’ of decisions already made,” said Celia Gregory, national education and mobilization manager at Hope Street Group.
When advocates support teachers in transforming their own concerns into policy solutions, the resulting proposals are often “innovative, refreshing and rooted in teacher practice,” added Ama Nyamekye, executive director at Educators for Excellence-Los Angeles.
Build on Potential
Educators often possess more advocacy skills than they realize, says Sarah Iddrissu, managing director of external affairs at Educators for Excellence-Boston.
With just a little support from advocates, including access to effective tools, their expertise can be translated into significant improvements in policy and implementation.
“Often, educators are not involved in policy or advocacy work because they’ve never been asked what they think, or because they aren’t aware of the levers to pull to influence policy,” said Charlie Cummings, senior director for fellowship programs at America Achieves.
Through the Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, America Achieves provided the right tools for two educator fellows with an important idea: a new high school diploma that better prepares students for postsecondary pathways into STEM careers. The fellows used a five-stage, 50+ step Policymaking Playbook, developed by the Educator Voice Fellowship, to craft the STEM Diploma Endorsement bill, which was signed into law in May 2017. (Read more on the new law here.)
Provide Time to Grow
With any educator voice opportunity, advocates stress the importance of building strong relationships with educators over time. For some organizations, this has meant extending the length of fellowship programs from one year to two, or encouraging participants to continue serving on councils for as many terms as they would like.
“This meant that we could continue to build relationships over a longer period of time without having to start fresh each year with a completely new group,” said Rachel Chan, senior program officer at the Rodel Foundation.
When planning an opportunity’s timespan, it’s also important to build in learning time upfront.
“Figuring out how to balance supporting the learning of our fellowship with taking action has been a big accomplishment,” explains Peter Tang, Tennessee Educator Fellowship coordinator at Tennessee SCORE.
“While there is always urgency for building support for academic expectations, high quality assessments, and strong accountability systems, we also know that our fellows need time to understand the system they are operating in.”
Plan Focused Support
Educators will have high expectations for learning experiences, so it’s important to make them meaningful. Sharpening educators’ skillsets around strategic communication, policy knowledge, and data literacy can make advocacy work accessible, as well as set up educators to be self-sustained advocates after fellowships or council terms end.
Training and development are key components of Stand for Children Louisiana’s educator voice programming, says educator organizer Mallory Wall-Padgett. “We were very deliberate in the way we engaged educators around our different bodies of work, first providing high-quality professional development and then providing meaningful advocacy opportunities that ensured our educators felt that their contributions were authentic and impactful.”
Focused skill-building helped Stand Louisiana educators inform and successfully advocate for two recent policy wins: improving teacher preparation and adding several important components to the state’s ESSA plan. Stand Louisiana is continuing to work with educators to monitor and influence the implementation of these policies.
Getting involved in policy can present a bandwidth challenge for busy educators, who often work long hours after the final school bell rings. As many advocates explained, it’s important to carefully build the right spaces to support authentic educator engagement.
One potential solution is to offer opportunities with varying time commitments and flexible locations–including, if possible, remote opportunities.
“We make strategic decisions about how to communicate with educators, when and where to host meetings and events, and how to celebrate and honor the work educators put in each and every day,” said Acasia Wilson Feinberg, Educators for Excellence-Chicago’s executive director.
Planning for authentic educator engagement has helped E4E-Chicago’s Teacher Policy Teams move from written assets to action. An E4E-Chicago policy paper on professional development was a critical lever in establishing the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Teacher Advisory Council, which meets monthly to engage in direct dialogue with CPS officials. Similarly, a group of E4E-Chicago educators working to improve teacher diversity and create more inclusive schools collaborated with the district to add training and professional development on these topics for CPS principals.
For more tips on engaging educators in policy work from leaders across the country, read the Educator Voice Opportunities report.