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Teachers, Here's How You Can Find Your Political Voice (Book Review)

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Guest post by Marilyn Anderson Rhames

Of all the books I read last school year, three had a huge impact, even life-changing in certain instances, on me and my work as an educator.  Stay tuned as I roll them out in subsequent blog posts.

I'll start with Celine Coggins' new book How to Be Heard: 10 Lessons Teachers Need to Advocate for Their Students and Profession (Wiley) released in July.

MarilynRhames_Headshot (1).jpgFor any teacher longing to make an impact on the profession beyond the four walls of her classroom or school, this book provides the tips and tricks to do just that. I was excited to get my hands on the manuscript in May. As I wrote on the back cover, "teachers have a voice, and in this book Celine teaches them how to strategically use it. It's like the Teach Plus Fellowship in a bottle."

I admit the power of this book was inextricably tied to the power of my experience as a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow. Coggins, a former 6th grade teacher who later earned a PhD in education from Harvard, founded Teach Plus in Boston in 2007. I was in her inaugural Chicago cohort in 2010. It took me two years in the program to get what Coggins has now packaged in her 183-page book.

Teach Plus has since grown to operate in 11 states, but remains inaccessible to the hundreds of thousands of teachers across America—until now. 

Teachers everywhere can read the book and start positioning themselves to become the educators that politicians and policymakers turn to for advice before they make ridiculously wrong-headed decisions about what's best for students and schools. 

The best thing about the book's message is that teachers don't need to leave the classroom to have a profound impact on education policy.

For instance, my Teach Plus fellowship pushed me to become the award-winning education blogger I am today. Despite working as a New York City reporter for six years before becoming a Chicago teacher, I spent seven long years in the classroom without publishing a single word.

I kept lying to myself, saying that my students would suffer if I split my time between writing and lesson planning. In actuality, blogging about my practice made me a much better teacher. I was inspired to try new teaching techniques and was less afraid of making mistakes. Sharing these lessons, good or bad, caused me to build a strong readership and earned me more trust with my students.

How to be Heard cover.jpgSix months after I started the Charting My Own Course blog for Education Week, I took the leap of faith to launch my nonprofit Teachers Who Pray.  Today, the nonprofit has more than 100 chapters across the country, and I have since shared my experiences with many publications (Huffington Post and Ebony among them). These beyond-the-classroom platforms have earned me a seat at the education policymaking table; I've advised mayors, school district and state superintendents, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. I was even invited to the White House to talk about education policy with senior advisors under the Obama administration.

"If you are speaking on behalf of your real students from your real classroom experience, you have a moral authority that is unrivaled in the policy world," Coggins writes.

But as Coggins warns in Chapter Two, "advocacy is not for the faint of heart." She explains that other educators and school advocates who never seemed to have learned how to respectfully disagree can more easily excoriate teacher-advocates online. On pages 28-30, Coggins cites one of my particularly bloody blogging battles that happened as I was also privately coping with the death of a student.

"Know when to say when," Coggins writes. "The trolls are out there and willing to engage in an unproductive back-and-forth ad infinitum if you let them. Resist!"

As you can see, the content in this book helped transform my mindset from being "just" a teacher to a full-blown educator—not only of students, but now as one who also educates adults about the practice of teaching.

How to Be Heard challenges teachers to reach deep within themselves to find their "why"—that thing that makes us come alive—and to use it revolutionize education. Teachers will develop the skillset—and the mindset—needed to elevate the teaching profession without ever leaving the classroom. 

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is a former Education Week blogger for Charting My Own Course. She is the founder of the nonprofit Teachers Who Pray. This is her first in a series of book reviews. Read more about Coggins' policy lessons for teachers on Education Week Teacher's Teaching Now blog.

Headshot provided by Marilyn Anderson Rhames

Photo: Book cover courtesy of Wiley

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