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Voices: Is teacher voice really attainable?

As part of an ongoing series on recruiting, training and supporting teachers, Donnell-Kay fellow Sarah Jenkins wonders how we can change the sense of powerlessness many teachers feel in affecting policy change.

As a teacher, I knew little about the scope of the education system existing beyond the walls of my classroom. Even after a few months at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, I am only beginning to recognize the complexities surrounding system structure and the policy making process. What I have learned since leaving the classroom has led me to more deeply appreciate teachers’ unique roles within education, while simultaneously opening my eyes to the reality that the system as it stands is too large and complex for teachers to be effective full-time educators and highly informed system-level advocates for their students.

To better understand teachers’ interactions with the complexities of the system, I asked a group of current educators to share their own impressions of policy.

Initially, all of the teachers mentioned that they do have a level of interest in education policy, one teacher including that “whatever decisions are made will impact my work as a teacher.” Another teacher clarified that lack of participation is due to the many responsibilities that teachers juggle, as any current or former teacher would agree. “It’s about not having the time to dedicate to thinking about policy. I feel like I’m working so much!”

Regrettably, even if time were not an obstacle, many teachers voiced a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness:

  • “My voice doesn’t feel very important to those who are making these decisions.”
  • “Teachers’ voices are only included in the discussion in the form of union representation and one or two teachers chosen to serve on a subcommittee. Unfortunately neither of those options succeeds in making an individual teacher feel their opinion has been heard. I’m not really sure how to solve that problem for myself, especially since I do not work at a unionized school.”
  • “I feel powerless to effect greater change within even my school district, let alone on the state or national stage.”

As a teacher, my greatest potential for a positive impact was in the classroom with my students. Consequently, I invested my time in becoming a better teacher. As much as I would have liked to expand my reach into policy, I would have been unable to be fully effective in my classroom and fully effective on a larger scale. As one teacher told me, “Because of the rigors of the job, when given a choice of researching a better way of teaching irrational numbers or reading about a policy that I will be unable to change, I choose to spend my time working for the students I serve.”

The nature of policy makes it nearly impossible for teachers to be fully engaged in the classroom and in high levels of system work. We need to engage teachers in Colorado’s education work, but we must be thoughtful, considering the levels where teacher participation should occur and potentially restructuring existing systems to allow for this participation. In the new year, I plan to explore the options that currently exist for teachers at the school, district, state, and even national levels so that teachers can feel empowered to be part of the decisions that impact their work. Meaningful changes can and will happen when teaching and policy experts collaborate for the benefit of Colorado’s children.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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