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Legislative Relationships: A Senator and a Teacher

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.

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In January 2014, Senate Bill 16 was introduced in Kentucky to allow computer programming language courses to be accepted as meeting foreign language requirements in the public schools. As a Spanish teacher, my response was one of immediate concern—for my future, but more importantly, for other colleagues in my profession. Thanks to my solutions-oriented training as a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Fellow, I reached out to Senator David Givens (who wrote SB 16) and initiated a proactive, positive relationship. This relationship enabled us to collaborate and discuss simple steps that all teachers can implement to create a strong relationship with their legislators. Senator Givens agreed to co-write a blog post with me to share our story.

Senator Givens: On the day we met, you traveled to Frankfort with Brian Bishop and other Hope Street colleagues to see the Legislature in action. Upon arriving, your group chose to attend the Senate Education Committee meeting as we were in the midst of the 2014 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly. I recall meeting you outside the committee room that day in 2014 when Brian introduced us and thought to myself, "Of all days for a foreign language teacher to come to Frankfort." It was ironic that I presented Senate Bill 16 the very day that you visited the Capitol.

I was impressed by how you conducted yourself in light of what some felt was a threat to the very courses you taught. Over the last year, we have exchanged multiple emails, a phone conversation or two, and an enjoyable visit in my Frankfort office. I have appreciated our dialogue and your willingness to listen to my thinking with an open mind while still advocating for your position.

Kip Hottman: It is important to maintain a positive attitude when engaging your legislator. Keep in mind...

  • In legislation, timing is key, so be present when possible.
  • If your Professional Learning Network (PLN) feels threatened, reach out to the community offering information and suggestions for next steps. Focusing on solutions will provide an opportunity for all parties to have a voice.
  • Being open-minded bridges existing gaps in relationships, enabling potential collaboration and honest, transparent conversation around the issues at hand.  
  • Embracing a proactive (not reactive) philosophy breaks down any barriers between the worlds of teachers and legislators, which enables all stakeholders to have a voice at the table.  
  • Conducting yourself in a positive, solutions-oriented manner will strengthen your relationship with your legislator, allowing for further collaboration in the future.

Senator Givens: Although my hope is that all citizens engage their legislators regarding issues that impact them, educators should be especially involved. Kentucky annually spends 60 percent of our $10 billion budget on K-12 and postsecondary education. Many different interest groups represent educators, administrators, and other school policy associations. While I believe citizens should be active in groups that align with their interests, it is more important to study the issues for themselves and then communicate directly with the people elected to represent them in the Legislature.

Kip Hottman:

  • It is important to be aware of the state budget and the manner in which funding is allocated towards education.
  • This will allow all educators to communicate any direct concerns with their legislators.

Senator Givens: Emails, phone messages, and messages to staff are all valid and important ways to connect. I encourage attending an event where your legislator is present, introducing yourself, and discussing concerns face-to-face. If the interaction will be longer than 2 to 3 minutes, then I suggest making an appointment. The most effective method is to regularly introduce yourself at three or four different events or occasions without having a "burning" issue or "immediate" need. This builds a trust relationship. Once the need arises to address a concern or discuss an issue, your representative should have knowledge of a "face and a name." If mail or email is the method chosen, I recommend "standing out" by handwriting a notecard or some brief correspondence. Copying a form letter from your association and pasting it into an email is the least effective means of communicating your message.

Kip Hottman:

  • First impressions are of utmost importance and can heavily influence the direction a relationship takes. Many times our first interaction with policy makers is one that is transactional. We need to be proactive and create solutions-oriented relationships before having a conversation about a "burning" issue.
  • Being a member of different associations is an important step towards reaching this goal. Organizations that advocate for education do amazing work and enable us to keep our heads above water.  
  • Although it is important to collaborate as a group, taking 2 or 3 minutes for a face-to-face meeting or sending a handwritten note are actions within reach of all educators. In order to be change-makers, we need to "stand out" and build trusting relationships as individuals.  

Senator Givens: Kentucky's legislators are referred to as citizen legislators. Although we are in Frankfort during the annual session period of January through March, most of us work at other jobs throughout the remainder of the year. While this offers a valuable perspective, it sometimes creates the challenge of balancing two or more jobs for many of us. During the interim meeting period, which typically runs June through November, we will meet in joint House and Senate committees to study issues. This time provides for more in-depth study of issues without the pressure of passing legislation. Most committees will meet once monthly in the interim.

Kip Hottman: Time is precious for all stakeholders. Legislators in Kentucky juggle two jobs, and many teachers do the same while they pursue multiple degrees or various teacher leadership roles. Both teachers and legislators are inundated with pressure from the public and are held to high standards. Legislators are expected to pass the desired legislation of their constituents and teachers are held accountable to the results of standardized exams. Both parties have an intense passion and work ethic and do their best to keep up with the multiple tasks on their plate. In light of the common challenges that legislators and teachers are presented with, isn't it time that we began to meet each other on common ground? If we are to impact teaching and learning as necessary partners in the education cosmos, both professions must find ways to work in concert toward one common goal: helping children succeed.

If our aims are the same, it makes sense for legislators and teachers to create policy together with increasing intentionality towards the realities in today's classroom. If we are to build trusting relationships among legislators and teachers, what questions must we first ask?  

  • Are there conversations that could be happening between all stakeholders that aren't happening systematically right now?
  • Could teachers spending time at state capitols and state legislators visiting their constituents' classrooms become a common practice?  
  • If legislation were created through transparent collaboration with the voice of all teachers, would it meet the needs of all stakeholders?  
  • Perhaps the most important question we should be asking is, "Why aren't these practices already the norm?"

--Kip Hottman and Senator David Givens

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