2018 was dubbed the “year of the teacher” because a record number of educators became candidates for public office that year. Teacher strikes across the country due to perennial issues such as large class sizes, budget cuts, and chronic low pay motivated many teachers to step outside of their comfort zones, put down their dry erase markers, and put on their canvassing shoes. Two high-profile victories that year included Tony Evers, the former Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Schools, who won his race to became Governor of Wisconsin. And Jahana Hayes, a former history teacher, administrator and Connecticut Teacher of the Year, who successfully ran a campaign to become a Congresswoman representing Connecticut’s 5th district.
A breakdown of candidate demographics according to Education Week reveals that in 2018 54% of teacher candidates were women, while 46% were men. 79% of candidates ran as Democrats, 18% ran as Republicans, 2% were independents, and one ran as a member of the Green Party. 82% of teachers ran for a state house seat, while 18% ran for a state senate seat. 2018 was not an aberration, however. According to the National Education Association, 90 educators successfully ran for public office in 2020. This is good news for our communities and our country because educators make outstanding candidates and officeholders.
Educators are excellent candidates for public office for many reasons, first and foremost, because people trust them. When most Americans have an unfavorable view of politics and politicians in general, 60% of respondents to a recent Forbes poll ranked teachers “very high” in terms of honesty and ethical standards. Teachers generally live and work in the communities they want to represent. They know their constituents and have demonstrated a deep commitment to them by educating and advocating for their children. Further, education is an issue most Americans care about.
A recent study conducted by PDK International determined that six in ten voters said education was “extremely” or “very important” in making their electoral decision. As a result, when a teacher knocks on the door or makes a phone call to a potential voter, they will have a mutual concern in common that can help build bridges across the partisan divide. This is a good thing, especially when the political landscape has become increasingly polarized and divisive.
Once in office, educators can put their classroom experiences to good use. The knowledge, skills, and dispositions required to succeed in public service are similar to the competencies developed in writing lesson plans, assessing student learning, and making data-driven decisions to improve student achievement. Successful teachers are organized, strategic planners, analytical thinkers, and detailed oriented, all of which are invaluable skills necessary to be an effective civic leader.
Additionally, teachers have strong interpersonal skills and understand the importance of developing and nurturing relationships by building trust through effective communication and active listening. Teachers know how to ask good questions and find common ground solutions. They effectively manage conflict and defuse tense situations, as any teacher who has been in a volatile parent-teacher conference can tell you.
The Nevada legislature currently has over a dozen members who have backgrounds in education. One of them is freshman Senator, Dr. Carrie Buck. Senator Buck spent a career in education before running for public office, first as a teacher and administrator in public schools, and then leading a charter school as its principal, executive director, and eventually as the president of the school’s foundation. Senator Buck points out that one of the strengths teachers in office have, is that they can bring their perspective of education issues to other legislators who may not have experience in that area. She explains that many lawmakers enact policy that impacts people without fully understanding how it might affect their constituents personally. Teachers have experience working with people to understand their personal needs and to find common ground solutions. It is this kind of relational approach that enables teachers to be successful in the political arena.
According to Carrie Pugh, National Policy Director of the NEA, teachers thinking about getting involved in politics should take the plunge. “Most of them, they didn’t wake up or grow up thinking they were going to run for office. They experienced year after year of politicians making promises that weren’t getting the job done.” When asked what teachers should do if they are thinking about getting politically involved, Senator Buck emphatically encourages teachers to “just do it, because teachers should be part of the conversation.” If the past is prologue, then it is likely that more teachers will get involved in the political process, and perhaps join other educator notables such as Washington Senator Pat Murray, California Representative Mark Takano, and President Lyndon B. Johnson as they went from writing lesson plans to making laws.
Dr. Jeffrey Allen Hinton has been teaching U.S. History in Las Vegas, Nevada, for almost 20 years. He is a National Board-Certified Teacher with advanced degrees in curriculum and instruction and U.S. History. He is the 2014 Nevada Teacher of the Year and has advocated for education through his work as a Teach Plus and Public Education Fellow. Additionally, Jeff is his building representative for the Clark County Education Association. Jeff is a former Marine who enjoys blogging, playing the guitar, reading, mountain biking, and weight training. Jeff is married and has three wonderful daughters.