By Ruby Miller-Gootnick ‘18
A few weeks back, teachers from all over the United States gathered in Chicago as part of AISR’s Teacher Leadership and Advocacy Study. As an undergraduate student and aspiring educator, I was humbled to be in the room, surrounded by teachers who had come together with enthusiasm, purpose, and a sense of possibility around teacher advocacy. This gathering brought together a chorus of teacher voices from a wide range of backgrounds, yet the teacher participants seemed to connect almost instantaneously. From the opening dinner Friday evening through the end of the event on Saturday afternoon, it was clear that we were building a network of powerful teacher leaders who share a common love for teaching and policy advocacy.
But along with excitement and a general optimism that connected us all in that room, there was an underlying feeling of frustration that I often heard in the teachers’ voices. In both formal and informal conversations, teachers voiced how tiring and isolating it is to be passionate about education policy, and how demanding it is – both physically and mentally – to take on leadership roles outside of the classroom. I kept thinking how impactful it would be if these teachers could work together in a space like this on a regular basis while staying in the classrooms they love, and I wished there was a mechanism to make this sort of convening happen more regularly. The feedback from the meeting evaluations highlighted this point as well: teachers need spaces that support their leadership and voice in education policymaking. Many participants said they would have appreciated a longer meeting to dive deeper into issues around shaping the teaching profession, focusing on student learning, and reworking education policy.
In my reflections upon the event, a few key points stuck out to me as crucial take-aways:
Teacher voice is missing from policymaking – the place it is needed most. The policies that affect teacher’s day-to-day work are often constructed by policymakers outside the education field. Why is education deemed as something that needs consulting from people removed from the frontlines of this work?
Teaching preparatory programs need to rethink their structure, what they’re teaching, and what they are missing. Teacher prep programs as a whole do not include concepts such as policy engagement, leadership, and social justice.
The teaching profession is not regarded as highly as it deserves to be, and therefore needs to be more rigorously professionalized in order to be taken more seriously by those in power. Teaching needs to be a profession that people aspire to stay in, rather than used as a pathway to another (more prestigious, better paid) line of work. To truly become a successful teacher requires years of experience and necessitates strength and commitment, all of which are too often disregarded.
Despite all of the barriers facing teacher leadership in education policy, the conversations I overheard and had the privilege to be part of in Chicago have given me hope for the future of this field. As a researcher, I saw the importance of teachers’ commitment to action and now hope to produce concrete research that will have a positive impact while fully honoring the participants’ work. As a college senior beginning to think about my role in education after graduation, this convening reminded me of the crucial knowledge and expertise, insight and innovation, that teachers brings both in the classroom and on the policy stage. I am excited to join such an engaged workforce, one that works every day to advance equity and justice in our communities.
Ruby Miller-Gootnick is a senior at Brown University and an undergraduate research intern at AISR.