If someone had told me that I would end up running for an office immersed in politics 10 years ago, I would have said they were crazy. Never say never.
In 2009, I was humbled to be named the Utah State Teacher of the Year. That year was filled with opportunities to engage with policymakers, within Utah and across the country. I found myself sitting in a conference listening to elected officials discuss public education and their ideas on how to improve upon what they referred to as “our failing public schools.”
It was at this moment that I realized the voice of educators was missing from this conversation. This is analogous to leaving out the brain surgeons when discussing the latest techniques in brain surgery!
I decided to do something about it. I put my hat in the ring for the office of President of the Utah Education Association and ended up winning the election. Baptism by fire, as they say. It became the hardest job I have ever loved.
I ask you, my fellow educators, to make a list of any classroom decisions you make that are not affected by politics. The list is likely a small one. Curriculum, discipline policies, and parent engagement are all influenced by elected officials, from local school boards to state legislatures to the federal government. Educators might not be interested in politics, but that does not mean politicians are not interested in us.
Running for political office puts our voices and expertise in the conversation. We know what research-based best practices work for students. We understand the complexities of teaching. We need to share our expertise about what we do best: teach.
Start small. It is all about relationships, relationships, relationships. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper. Attend your local school board meeting and arrange to speak in support of a position or perhaps express concern over topics being debated. Visit Capitol Hill during the legislative session. Speak with your state representatives and senators. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. Stay in touch all year long and not just during the session.
Now that your feet are wet, think about running for office! Be sure you have the time and energy to devote to this endeavor. It is exhausting but well worth it.
Most of us have heard the saying, “If you are not at the table, you are likely on the menu.” Time to get a seat at the table. Political office opens the door for educators to influence policy, to change hearts and minds about teaching, and to elevate what is best for students and the educators charged with this sacred duty. If not us, who?
In today’s polarized political world, we need educators to step up and lead. That requires courage, professionalism, risk-taking, critical thinking, collaboration, and expertise. Sound familiar? It should. It is what we do every single day in our classroom with students.
Our students need us to speak for equitable funding, practices, and policies. The only way to do this is to get in the political game. Standing on the sidelines is not an option. Find a way to get in the game!
I honestly believe public education is the path toward improved communities, communication, and an improved world. If we do not step up now, others will do so. We see this manifest itself in ways that are detrimental to our students and our profession.
We see the consequences for students when well-intentioned but ill-informed policies are implemented. We see the consequences for our profession as we face massive teacher shortages across the country.
Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It is our time to be agents of change. Our students and our profession are worth it.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh was an educator in Salt Lake City, Utah, for 32 years. In 2010, Sharon was elected, in a statewide vote, President of the Utah Education Association and served for a total of six years. Sharon is a National Board Certified Teacher, the 2009 Utah Teacher of the Year, and a recipient of the 2009 California Casualty Academic Award for Teaching Excellence and the 2009 Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence. In April 2010, the National Education Association Foundation awarded her its top honor, the $25,000 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. Sharon is a Board member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She has served as the Chair of the NEA Foundation’s Board of Directors and the Vice Chair of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Board of Directors.
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