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The Top 5 Things I Learned from the Governor’s Teacher Cabinet

This post is written by NCTE member, Cathy Whitehead, the 2016 State Teacher of the Year for Tennessee. 

CathyWhiteheadIn a recent conversation about teacher leadership, a colleague said, “We have to move past teacher voice. We need teacher power to create change.” Her comment really resonated with me. It’s well and good to listen to teachers, but for real change to take place, we need to not only invite teachers to the conversation . . . we need to give them a seat at the table.

In Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam did that quite literally last spring when he took the historic step of creating the inaugural Governor’s Teacher Cabinet. I am honored to be one of the 18 teachers from across the state who sit at the table with him and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen quarterly to offer our insight and perspectives as classroom teachers and take information from that work back to our districts.

After a year of work with the Governor’s Teacher Cabinet, I’ve grown as a teacher leader, and I feel far more confident influencing policy and advocating for students and teachers. Along the way, I’ve learned some important lessons that may help you navigate the waters of educational policy and advocacy with high-level stakeholders.

  • Know who you are. What you know matters, but who you are matters more. What are you passionate about? What’s your teaching story? What is one area of advocacy you really want to talk about? How can you get that across? For me, I’m passionate about educational inequity, choice literacy, and teacher leadership, and I’m especially eager to chime in when those subjects are up for discussion. I also know I always have a talking point in case I get a minute or two to talk with Governor Haslam or Dr. McQueen. At the first meeting of the Cabinet, I had a moment to speak with the governor, and I was so nervous that I honestly don’t remember what I said. I left berating myself for a missed opportunity, and I’ve vowed not to let that happen again!
  • Know that your voice makes a difference. Throughout our time on the Cabinet, I have seen policymakers and stakeholders take note of our conversations, but the power behind our collective voice was made crystal clear one evening. We had been invited to a telephone conference of the Cabinet, and we were asked for our input on an idea for proposed legislation. The very next day, news of that legislation began to circulate, and it was eventually passed by our legislature. You may not see such concrete evidence of your influence often, but it is there nonetheless. Your voice can make a tremendous difference in the lives of thousands of educators and millions of children.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up. Sitting at a table with high-level policymakers can be disconcerting. After all, you’ve seen them in the media for years, and to be sitting at the same table, much less to be having a conversation with them, can be intimidating. And, in the case of the Teacher Cabinet, there may be legislators, reporters, and other support people in the room. Remember that you are there for a purpose, you were chosen for a reason, and the people there really do want to hear what you have to say. With the Teacher Cabinet, our members are diverse, so when everyone speaks up, the governor and the commissioner get a healthy, well-rounded view of teachers’ perspectives. Also, feel free to respectfully push back—that’s part of why you’re there. During the interview process and in subsequent meetings, it was made crystal clear that the governor wants a team who will be honest and forthright when they agree . . . and when they disagree.
  • Stay centered in your classroom. Remember that policymakers aren’t in the classroom. You are. Unless you share what your reality is like in your corner of the world, they have no frame of reference for the policies that are created . . . which very much affect your classroom and thousands of others. Own your story and share it. Feel free to back up your comments with brief anecdotes that clearly illustrate how a policy does or would affect the kids in your classroom. It’s those stories that can help policymakers see the concrete results of their work.
  • It’s okay to ask questions. You are not expected to know everything. If you don’t understand something, be transparent and ask. I guarantee you everyone there will appreciate you for it. At one meeting, I remember a teacher discussing a program with an acronym that was completely unfamiliar to me. At last, another teacher spoke up and asked him to clarify, and I was so relieved that I wasn’t the only one in the room who was unsure. As a colleague recently told me, “I’m not at all afraid to ask questions. I’m more afraid of not asking them!”

Teaching can be an isolating profession, and it’s easy to feel disconnected from the process of policy. However, any policymaker worth his or her salt will sincerely want to hear what you have to say. After all, you are the expert. As Governor Haslam shared at a meeting of the Cabinet, “There is no better authority to inform policy than those who are teaching in our classrooms.”

Share your voice. Take a seat at the table. Create change.

Cathy Whitehead is a third-grade teacher at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson, Tennessee. She is currently serving her state as the 2016 Tennessee Teacher of the Year.