On the site we offer an array of ideas about becoming an everyday advocate, including a toolkit of strategies for creating change in your local setting. You’ll be guided by Cathy Fleischer, a professor of English education and Written Communication at Eastern Michigan University who has been working with teachers on advocacy issues for the past decade. You’ll also meet teachers who are working hard to create change, learn how they got started, and be introduced to specific strategies and tactics they used.
We start with Cathy’s backstory…but take a moment to tell us about yours.
You can listen to a recent interview with Cathy in which she discusses much of what is written below via this Voices from the Middle Podcast, Vol. 24, Episode 3.
As someone committed to teachers, to teacher voices, and to educational change, I have been working on this issue for almost two decades. So, let me begin with my story and growing awareness of why teacher advocacy matters.
I began as a high school English teacher in the ‘80s and experienced the kind of dismissive attitude that teachers have long endured (and that is exponentially worse these days). During those days, I complained a lot about how teachers were treated in the public eye, and I first began to entertain some ideas about the connections between teaching and advocacy. My husband, who was involved in numerous grass roots initiatives, kept telling me that if I wanted to really make change, I should think about an advocacy campaign, offering me specific advice on how to do it.
All his nudges began to make sense years later. In the early 1990s when I was a newly minted PhD and college professor, I attended a state board of education meeting that was focused on whether or not to adopt a new English Language Arts curriculum. The curriculum was forward looking, based in current best practices and one that teachers around the state had worked on diligently. The teachers were nervous but excited to be at the meeting, hopeful that their logic and good sense would convince the Board to adopt the curriculum. I sat back with a smile on my face—ready to hear the Board members applaud the teachers for their good work.
As the teachers stood up to offer careful and rehearsed testimony on their proposed changes, however, the elected officials paid little attention. They walked on and off the stage; they talked with each other; it seemed as if they did their best to not listen to the teachers and their important message. As we broke for lunch, the teachers were despondent, convinced that their hard work and careful research had not paid off and saddened by the dismissive attitude of the board toward their expertise.
But after lunch, an amazing thing happened. A parent stood up to testify, clutching in her hand a pink booklet that was written by one of the teachers in the room. The booklet, created by this teacher to help parents understand why and how she taught in the way she did, explained in very clear language the benefits of certain ways of approaching reading and writing and offered specific examples of children’s progress to become literate. As the parent spoke, explaining how this way of teaching helped students, the members of the Board completely shifted gears: listening intently, nodding their agreement, and responding to her impassioned words.
This anecdote offers two lessons that have stayed with me for over two decades.
Lesson 1: When teachers speak, those in authority may not listen. But when parents speak, they have a better chance of being heard.
Lesson 2: If parents are the ones who can be heard, then teachers need to find ways to inform them, so that those parents can inform others.
My husband’s words about community organizing came back to me. Perhaps some grass roots work dedicated toward educating parents was the way to help others—i.e., those in decision-making roles—understand.
The New Negative Narrative
Over the last decade, a new narrative has emerged about teachers. This narrative comes from a variety of sources and is forwarded to the public every day:
- Teachers don’t work that hard (with their short days and long summers)
- Teachers only care about some students (and thus need legislation like NCLB and Race to the Top to make them care)
- Teachers are not capable of recognizing the pedagogies that work best in their own context (and thus the need for CCSS or other state standards)
- Teachers don’t know how to assess students accurately (and thus the need for nationalized testing through PARCC or Smarter Balanced and/or multiple batteries of state tests)
Like many teachers, I’ve felt paralyzed by the staying power of this narrative, a version of “the problem with schooling” that is focused on teachers and their supposed failings rather than on the system underlying teachers’ work.
What We Can Do
As the late activist Grace Lee Boggs once told us:
“Just being angry, just being resentful, just being outraged, does not constitute revolution.”
So what can we do with our feelings of anger and our paralysis?
We as teachers are natural advocates—we advocate for our students all the time. What we need to do now is learn strategies to advocate for ourselves, our teaching, and what we know is best for children. We need to change the public narrative about literacy education.
This website provides examples of what we can do. The examples are based in the work of teachers who have participated in classes, institutes and workshops I’ve offered over the past five years. As I’ve watched teachers put advocacy into practice, I’ve been amazed: at the changes that they’ve been able to implement, at their newfound confidence in talking about ideas, and at their ability to bring others on board. While none of this has been easy for these teachers and while they still are challenged by the current climate, they (and I) see a little ray of hope.