A Math Teacher Goes to the Capitol…And Why You Need To Do the Same

April 26, 2016

If you had asked me six months ago if I would be requesting meetings with legislators and sharing my experiences as an educator with them, I would have laughed at you. But that is exactly what I did this month and will be doing in the future. If you are an educator you need to do this too. Let me tell you how.

This month, I attended the Michigan Educator Voice Convening and spent most of the day in the Michigan Capitol building. I first met with Michigan Representative Adam Zemke (@adamzemke) with a team of three teachers and administrators. Rep. Zemke has been extremely interested in what we are doing in the classroom and our conversations have been productive and engaging.

I choose to assume good intentions about our policymakers. I realize that there are a lot of moving pieces in making legislation and sometimes things don’t turn out the way a person intended. That being said, it is crucial that teachers start speaking up about what they do every day and how to improve our schools to best benefit our students and communities.

I know you are busy, but this is important. You are the expert. You are the one who helped the struggling student learn to read. You are the one who managed an entire class (or 7 classes) of student learning last week while you were also juggling parent conferences, IEP meetings, and your observation from your principal. You are the one who encouraged the sullen teenager to keep going in math and the one who saw that student through his cap on graduation day.

You have valuable information about what you need for professional learning and what your students need from their teachers. Legislators are responsible for voting on bills covering a wide range of topics and can’t be experts on everything. The legislators I have met are very interested in talking with teachers, so it is time for us to reach out. Recently convened national campaigns like TeachStrong, a coalition of 60 education organizations and teacher Ambassadors dedicated to elevating the teaching profession, are a sign that now is the time to demand more support for teachers.

You need to build a relationship with your Representative or Senator in both the districts for your residence and your school. You can start by attending the “Coffee Hours” that Representatives and Senators hold in their districts. These are informal and (usually) held on Saturdays. If you are in Michigan, use these links to find your Representative or Senator. Coffee Hours are often listed on the legislators’ websites; if they are not listed, times can be obtained by calling the office or following the person on Twitter or Facebook. If your legislator does not have regular coffee hours, you can ask for a meeting when he or she is in the district.

A few weeks before going to Michigan Capitol, I emailed Representative Rutledge and Senator Warren (@rebekahwarren) to try to set up appointments. Though they were both in session, their staff members shared that you can go to the House and Senate sessions and request a Representative or Senator to come out of the session and speak with you. I set up specific times with each of the aides and then went to the sessions with my colleagues. All you have to do is fill out a request form and give it to the Sergeants, who then deliver it to the legislator in session.

We spoke with Senator Warren briefly at the Capitol and agreed to set up a more in depth follow-up meeting so she can visit our schools. We also spoke with Representative Rutledge and he asked us to come back to his office to meet again.

This is how you start the conversation. The idea is to meet your legislators so you can learn more about them and they can learn about you and your school. Our democracy depends on engaged citizens and our students depend on engaged teachers. Talk to your legislator today.

Gina Wilson, NBCT

Gina Wilson is a Lead Teacher and CORE Advisor at the Early College Alliance @ Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in Mathematics and a director for the MI National Board Certified Teachers Network. She is also a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow through America Achieves, a Collaborative for Student Success Teacher Champion, and a TeachStrong Ambassador. Prior to her teaching career, she worked as an environmental engineer and earned a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan. Follow her at @GinaWilsonNBCT.