When I think of a pioneer, I think of nineteenth century people willing to take chances by moving west, astronauts empowered by mathematicians and scientists that sought space exploration, and characters in a Willa Cather novel. In the past, I hadn’t really thought to apply that word to teachers. Yet, in so many ways, teachers are pioneers, seeking to open up a new activity, a new line of thinking, or a new development in the education world.
Look around on Amazon and you’ll see teacher authors selling books on new engagement methods and strategies. On Twitter, teachers are organizing, leading, and participating in chats. I read the books from my teacherpreneur friends and participate in weekly chats on Twitter. I’ve learned a lot over the past few years about education and how to help my students engage within the classroom. Yet, some pioneers seek to create a bridge to engage the outside policymaking world with the needs of students and teachers within the classroom. Enter WATAC. Taken from their website, “The Washington Teacher Advisory Council or WATAC is the voice of accomplished teachers advocating for student success. We inform education decisions and influence policy, promoting equity, and excellence for all.” WATAC is functioning on a new line of thinking– open up the lines of communication between those education decision makers and teachers who are impacted by policy. Pioneering, right? So maybe on paper, this doesn’t sound like a new development in the education world. But talk with teachers and you’ll soon find that we are rarely consulted about how an educational policy is impacting our kids and our work. While there are some opportunities for work groups to flush out policy implementation (I participated in one for TPEP analyzing the first few districts to pilot the new evaluation system), educator voice is needed at all steps in the policy process, not just at the work group implementation stage. Much less, we’re even less likely to be approached with what legislative or policy needs we have. Until you’ve established a line of communication between yourself and your local legislator, it’s unlikely you’ll be consulted about potential legislation (although to be clear, I’m a huge fan of talking to my legislators and I’ve had a positive experience with this over the past year). So, to take up the cause, WATAC seeks to do this work and to help teachers learn how to advocate for their students and their classrooms, too. Basically, WATAC wants to ensure that there is teacher voice involved in creating policy and evaluating policy. Because who better to know what a policy can do to a classroom, than the teachers who work with students who are impacted by the law?
How do we create and curate teacher voice in education policy decisions? What systems need to be in place to ensure that teachers have a voice? What systems need to be in place to ensure sustainability regardless of who the education policymakers are? Clearly, I have more questions than answers. WATAC is still new and this is pioneering work that these educators have taken on. Engaging in education policy advocacy isn’t something teachers have a lot of training in how to do and frankly, it’s hard to find the time to eat lunch, much less read up on laws moving through the state legislature (by the way, save yourself some time and consider signing up for weekly legislative updates here: http://cstp-wa.org/policy-dialogue/legislative-updates/. You can also sign up to receive updates from OSPI (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) and PESB (Professional Educator Standards Board) here: https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/WAOSPI/subscriber/new.) Creating systems that partner teachers with policy makers is going to take time, some careful planning, and serious assessment. We need clear deliverables in statutes that require practitioner voice. We need systems in place for how to do this.
I have faith. WATAC’s work has just begun but the foundation’s laid. A network of award winning teachers has been established and a leadership team of teachers assembled. Last Spring, WATAC held its first conference, engaging educators in policy advocacy at the local, regional, state, and national levels. The result? 75 educators came together to learn how policy is constructed, and how to ask for change in their schools, their districts, and at the state level. Educators learned about ESSA and had a chance to talk with legislators and policy makers from OSPI and the Governor’s Office. The network is growing. Like pioneers, the pathway may not always be clear as to how to get to the goal, but the vision is there. Planning is key for a journey like this. But promoting educator voice is worth the expedition.