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Raising Teachers’ Voices

Gojak_Linda-100x140By NCTM President Linda M. Gojak
NCTM Summing Up, March 4, 2014

One of the highlights of my work as president has been meeting teachers of mathematics in kindergarten through college from all around the country. It is immediately obvious that they care deeply about their students. It is also evident that in this era of high-stakes tests, teachers are worried about how decisions made by elected officials will affect their ability to do what is best for students and their own futures. The role of classroom teachers and other educators must include advocating to decision makers on behalf of their students, themselves, and their schools.

Although advocacy is one of the Council’s strategic priorities, it is sometimes overlooked because NCTM is first and foremost an organization of teachers for teachers. But if we are to live up to our mission to be the public voice of mathematics education, we must advocate for our members—and our members must advocate for themselves and their students.

NCTM’s members and leaders tend to think in terms of what the Council can do for them and what will help them in the classroom. This assistance usually takes the form of classroom resources, such as the books and practitioner journals that NCTM produces. However public policies have a great effect on teachers and their classrooms. These policies are developed and enacted through a process that NCTM influences as an organization, and that NCTM’s individual members can also influence.

Venturing into the policy arena might be uncomfortable for some of us because we think of ourselves as professionals who have been educated and prepared to be teachers, not advocates. Over my two years as president, I have gained a greater appreciation for how much influence a single effective advocate can have. I now have a much better understanding of how powerful the teacher’s voice can be—not just in Washington, but also in states, and at the local level, with school boards, administrators, and parents. Reaching each of these groups is important for effective advocacy.

Why should teachers be advocates? The growing public focus on assessment and teacher preparation has brought more attention to teachers, and some of that attention can feel like criticism. Unless teachers have an effective voice in developing policies, more and more teachers will feel as though something is being done to them rather than for them, and that it is happening without having any say or involvement in the decisions that affect their life’s work.

Although this may seem to be a somewhat teacher-centric view of our education world, we must recognize that however important the effects of policies are on us as teachers, the consequences that they have for students are even more important. Didn’t we become teachers to help students? We can advocate for ourselves as teachers, but ultimately what we stand for and should advocate for is what is best for the education of our students.

There are many ways to advocate. You don’t need to be a high-powered, highly compensated Washington lobbyist to have an impact on policy. In fact, few things are more powerful than a first-person success story from an individual teacher. That is why you hear stories from teachers who testify on Capitol Hill, and why they get the attention of elected officials and the news media.

You don’t have to go to Washington to be heard. You can write or call members of Congress or your state representative. Every constituent has a voice and each one is listened to. This is true whether you are in Washington or in your home state. Although some issues are federal issues, many decisions that directly impact school districts are made at the state level. To have an influence on how your representatives vote, find out who the key players are on the issue and offer them your own perspective as a teacher. Remember, you are an expert, and you know best what works in the classroom. Tell them your story and the stories of your students. Remember that there is strength in numbers. If you can persuade a group of your peers to join you in writing and signing a letter, your voice will be amplified. And if you have a state Affiliate that can speak as a group, your point of view will be listened to in a different way.

Much of NCTM’s advocacy is done in Washington at the federal level by leadership and staff of the Council. NCTM has also produced an online advocacy toolkit to help individuals have an impact on education policy. It includes a communications guide with basic information on how to begin communicating with policymakers and the news media, NCTM’s Legislative Platform, information on NCTM positions, and resources to help you find and contact your members of Congress. A quick Google search should provide you with the names of state and local officials as well as opportunities to receive e-mail notifications of issues that are important to you.

Borrowing from one of my highly respected professional peers, I will add that another way of explaining why we should be advocates is that if we’re not at the table, we might be on the menu. The absence of the teacher’s voice from policy debates, expressed either by individuals advocating for teachers or by NCTM advocating on behalf of all of us, leaves the door open to policies that will have adverse effects on us as professionals, and more importantly, harmful consequences for our students.  

NCTM speaks with the voice of its 80,000 members, and each of those members has a voice of his or her own. I encourage you to use your voice to advocate on behalf of education, your students, and the students of tomorrow.

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