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The Power of Collaboration: 3 Ways to Bring Teachers and Legislators Together

My interaction with state legislators has been limited, but it has always been powerful. Typically, it involves a formal presentation to a committee with my ideas about the standards or teacher evaluation. 

Recently, though, I saw the power of a different kind of dialogue between teachers and legislators—something that I think could truly transform the teaching profession and education in this country.

Last month, I attended a convening put on by the National Council of State Legislatures. This organization works to serve the needs of elected officials by facilitating educational and collaborative opportunities. This particular convening organized the heads of educational committees from across the country—as well as a group of teachers from the Center for Teaching Quality.

It was an amazing opportunity to share authentic discussion with legislators in a style that I’d never experienced before. The setting was informal, which allowed us to interact with the legislators about any number of educational policy issues over round table style discussions, meals and in passing around the hotel. My colleagues and I were able to draw on our classroom experience and expertise as we engaged in discussion on a variety of education topics.

While this was a great experience, I’m not naïve enough to think that two days of collaboration is the answer. But it is a beginning. Here are three steps that could make these discussions between legislators and teachers more frequent and impactful:  

1. Break down perceived barriers.

As my friend, Arkansas teacher Justin Minkel, so thoughtfully stated in his reflections on the convening, the first barrier that needs to come down between teachers and legislators is assumptions and stereotypes.

It often feels like the world of a classroom teacher and the world of a state legislator are just too far apart. I’ve learned, though, they may not be as far apart as they seem.

Politicians have a responsibility to their constituency to lead the systems that we all benefit from. Teachers have a responsibility to a different kind of constituency (students, parents and peers) to provide children with opportunities to learn and grow. For our system to become better, teachers and legislators need to look for areas of overlap in our worlds—and use that common ground as a starting point for deep and authentic conversation.

I think it’s rare when anyone steps back to look at issues from others’ perspectives. For example, I know a lot about the implementation of standardized tests and teacher evaluation systems and how impact students and teachers. My local legislators know a lot about the intricacies of state budgets and accountability reports. We could learn so much about our different areas of expertise through collaborative dialogue. By looking past our preconceived ideas about those who differ from us, we can create better access to new ideas and conversations.

2. Trust teachers as experts of their profession

During our discussion, the senator from Utah asked a great question: “How do we make the teaching profession more professional?” He genuinely wanted to know how to recruit and retain higher quality teachers—a question that is often asked by educators within the system as well.

At the meeting, it was very clear that legislators wanted to investigate quality control. But I think it surprised them that this line of thinking did not ruffle our feathers. In fact, the opposite was true. We acknowledged that it’s important to monitor and support the system so that great teaching can happen. We also pointed out that policymakers can make sure these measures work for all stakeholders if they involve all stakeholders in the design and implementation process.

Barnett Berry, our panel facilitator, pointed out that it’s up to policy makers to engage with teacher leaders and start dialogue about making the system better for everyone—not just making it good enough with a few mediocre reform ideas.

Teachers know the needs and challenges of their students and have great ideas about ways to improve education. Legislators should start by treating teachers as professionals and engaging them in conversation that leads to effective change.

So, senator, here’s my answer: Seeking out teachers’ expertise is a great first step towards making the teaching profession more professional.

3. Focus on solutions

My favorite conversation at the meeting was with Colorado senator Andy Kerr. I’d never met him before, but during an informal cocktail hour, I was able to chat with him about some Colorado-specific ideas. Our conversation focused on issues that both of us are very involved in—mainly teacher evaluation and standards implementation. We talked about how local policies have impacted both of us this past school year.

Our conversation showed that we have common desires for our state’s educational system (which is great). But for these shared desires to be truly impactful, Senator Kerr needs to take it a step further. He and other legislators need to formalize and scale their interactions to include teachers from across the state.

At the end of the two-day conference, my colleagues and I were energized about having potential ongoing relationships with these elected officials. It was clear to us that it’s time to bring down the walls so that legislators and teachers can engage in thoughtful, productive conversations about solutions—and making public education the dynamic and effective system is has the potential to become. 

2 Comments

Maggie Pearce commented on July 31, 2014 at 3:03pm:

Great insight, Jessica!

Thanks for providing your thoughts on this, Jessica! As a pre-service teacher, one of my priorities is to 'break down the barriers' between teachers and our representatives. It's often forgotten that their duty is in their title- to serve as representatives of our communities. They typically want to hear input from teachers, and your insight is incredibly helpful for starting these conversations and making them as effective as possible. 

Jessica Keigan Jessica Keigan commented on July 31, 2014 at 11:51pm:

Best of luck!

What a great thing to focus on! I wish you the best of luck, Maggie, both in your endeavors to reach out to local representatives and in your future teaching adventures! I recommend that you find as many ways to be visible to your representatives as you can. If they see you testifying on behalf of educational issues in your state, you have the seeds of a relationship that can hopefully yield more authentic interactions down the road.

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