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Legislative Lessons for Teachers and Education

Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he's off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week's guest posts will be written by Kip Hottman (@KipHottman). Hottman is a Spanish teacher at Oldham County High School near Louisville, Kentucky, and a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Fellow.

"What do you think about your entire profession changing in eight minutes?" Hmm.... How do you respond in a moment like this? A moment that generates an overwhelming feeling of anxiety in the pit of your stomach, knowing that years of your blood, sweat, and tears just changed in a matter of minutes and you don't understand why. The memory of that freezing cold January morning when the Hope Street Group (HSG) director, Brian Bishop, asked me that question still resonates deep within my teacher-soul. Little did I know that it would profoundly change my life as an educator.

January 2014 arrived with more icy fury than any winter I can remember in my twelve years as a World Language teacher. It was bitter cold!!! Take-your-breath away cold, chill-to-the-bone-once-stepping-outside cold. With cold weather comes snow. And, in Kentucky, snow often means ice, and that usually equals a snow day.

As snow days became a weekly norm, Brad Clark (another HSG Fellow) and I decided to take advantage of each school cancellation by turning it into a professional learning opportunity. The goal was to meet Brian Bishop, whom I now count as a mentor, at the capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, for a lesson on education legislation. Becoming a HSG KY Fellow had newly opened my eyes to a wide world of teacher leadership, but my understanding of legislation and education policy formation remained limited. The importance and personal value of this professional learning couldn't be denied. The Education Committee room was my new classroom.

I was so inexperienced in the world of educational legislation and political policy that I didn't even know what to wear. I felt as if I were a student getting ready for prom or a kid leaving for college for the first time. I was nervous and unsure of what to expect—like my first day of student teaching. As I finished putting on the one suit that I own, my wife glanced in my direction, shook her head, and came over to help straighten my tie. Her smile reassured me that this work mattered and that becoming educated about policy would strengthen my overall understanding of how the education system in Kentucky worked.

After arriving at the capitol, I met Brad and Brian in front of the Education Committee room naïve and unaware of the path that lay before me. Brian checked on the nature of the bills being proposed, and I noticed an immediate change in his expression. Looking at me with a gleam in his eye, he handed me the Education Committee schedule and asked, "What do you think about this?" I glanced down and read the name of the bill and the description: Senate Bill 16 (SB 16): Allow computer programming language courses to be accepted as meeting foreign language requirements in the public schools. I can adapt to a multitude of challenges from my students and respond to any and all of their thought-provoking questions with little difficulty, but I had no answer for Brian—I was frozen. My first encounter with a legislative bill that directly impacted my own profession and I stood in the hallway of the Legislative Annex, paralyzed.

As we entered the Education Committee to witness the SB 16 proposal, Brian greeted a middle-aged man wearing a suit and tie and said, "Hello, Senator Givens. Let me introduce you to Kip Hottman, a Spanish teacher in Kentucky." My first face-to-face introduction with a legislator happened to be with the Senator proposing SB 16. He presented himself in a friendly and engaging manner, informing us that his wife taught in Kentucky and that he fiercely advocated for education.

What could have been an awkward introduction proved to be an important educational lesson for me: I realized that legislators were passionate members of society advocating for issues that they believed were in the best interest of their constituents. The bill wasn't necessarily in my favor, and I finally understood that in order to become part of the conversation I needed to step out of the comfort of my classroom. I had been oblivious to policy for too long rather than holding the 30,000-foot view that I now know is necessary when interacting with legislators.

As the Education Committee commenced, I scanned the room searching for a group of World Language teachers. I quickly realized that the executive director of the Kentucky Education Association sat as the only voice truly advocating for teachers. We had a brief conversation about SB 16 and its impact on WL teachers, but seeing her with my own eyes representing WL teachers broadened my understanding of KEA's work in Kentucky. Realizing that KEA did far more than I initially understood motivated me to become involved and support their important advocacy work.

The Senate Education Committee called the session to order and the events unfolded in a whirlwind. I watched as Senator Givens presented his data about Computer Programming (CP) and I agreed with his talking points about the importance of CP. I believed that the placement of CP as a WL credit needed to be discussed with WL teachers and, unfortunately, the session lacked those specific voices, but I also saw the value of trying to more deeply incorporate CP into the offerings for Kentucky students.  

While I was busy absorbing the information (and my reactions to all of the implications of this bill), I noticed that the Senator had finished speaking. I watched as all of the Senate Education Committee members voted in a matter of seconds. The room was silent apart from the rumble of the gavel striking the lectern as Mike Wilson, the chair of the committee, called out, "Meeting adjourned."  

Brian looked at me as a father seizing a teachable moment with his son: "What do you think about your entire profession changing in eight minutes?"

There are two ways to respond to the possibility of your profession changing in an eight-minute session at the capitol. Anger can inundate your emotions, causing you to respond in a reactive manner (which typically solves nothing), or you can focus on being proactive and solutions-focused—becoming a change-maker. My training from the HSG State Fellowship provided me with the necessary tools to remain positive, looking for solutions and common ground among stakeholders.

Here is what I now realize:

  • It's okay to be speechless when starting this work. We don't know what experiences a legislator brings to the table and becoming engaged in legislation is a learning process.
  • If a bill is written that directly affects you and your Professional Learning Network (PLN), reach out to the community and offer information and suggestions for next steps. Provide ideas that would change the bill to meet the needs of everyone involved, creating a solution for all parties. This promotes a neutral conversation, allowing PLN members to make their own choices and become engaged in a proactive manner.
  • Contact your legislators before reacting to a bill. Stay positive and thank them for the work that they have done in the state. Legislators want to embrace all constituents, but their constituents have to be willing to start a relationship.
  • Be persistent and don't give up. Session is a busy time and meetings often last through the night. Get to know a legislator's secretary and work together to find an open date for both parties to set up a face-to-face interview or a virtual meeting.
  • Embrace all partners who advocate for the profession. To affect policy change, you must be willing to collaborate and share ideas.
  • Find a mentor! Just as we mentor the students in our classroom, it's okay for us to take the role of a student to learn about policy and have a complete understanding of the education system.

Following these steps enabled me to form a positive relationship with Senator Givens and collaborate with World Language teachers across the state to find a place for SB 16. The bill was amended through positive conversation between all stakeholders and SB 16 became a lesson for Brad and me (as well as many other Kentucky Fellows) on the importance of all parties being involved in legislation. This experience changed my understanding of my role as an educator. I was the student. I still am the student. The more I learn about education legislation, policy, and practice, the more questions I have.

--Kip Hottman

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