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Should Teachers Invite Policymakers Into Their Classrooms?

It was one of those pre-scheduled Twitter conversations with a Famous Education Expert, hosted by an equally famous nonprofit. The topic was around building teacher leadership. The Expert was making lots of assertions about the right way to become a bona fide teacher leader. Some of the suggestions were good—start small, build a cadre of colleagues, be well-informed about the issues. Then she tweeted that one of the best things to do was invite policymakers into your classroom.

This drew lots of excitement, with tweets about how it could change everything, if only policymakers understood how hard teachers worked, how much they cared about the kids, and the kinds of problems kids brought into the classroom every day. If only legislators understood these issues, they wouldn't pass unproductive and punitive legislation!

I was basically lurking around the edges of this conversation (although I belong to the sponsoring organization), but this was such a myth that I had to throw a monkey wrench into this little festival of optimism.

In my teaching career, I have had more than the usual number of opportunities to have outsiders (including media, education organizations, researchers and, yes, legislators) visit my classroom, especially during my Michigan Teacher of the Year tenure. And I can testify that most visitors don't come to learn something new from an hour or two walking in the teacher's shoes. They come with an agenda.

If they come at all. Which was the point I made to the Twitter convo, and the Expert. I asked any number of State House and Senate representatives to visit—not to mention other policy-shapers—and they're generally 'too busy' to take a day away from work. Most won't come for a classroom visit unless they know what the ultimate 'get' is going to be: a flattering photo of the senator reading to children, a meeting with the superintendent (whose power base is adults, not children), or a pitch to students approaching voting age.

There's also this: Very few legislators care about how many hours teachers put in, or their creative ideas about instruction or curriculum. If the policymaker is representing a high-poverty district, they already know about the problems faced by schools, and the inadequacy of policies designed to lift people out of hardship. What they're looking for is Big Sexy Ed-Reforms—ways to impact large swaths of the citizenry, to get bills passed, to 'innovate' and 'disrupt.'

Furthermore, visits from outsiders require time and preparation—things that are better spent on actual teaching, in an atmosphere where students feel secure and comfortable about making mistakes and trying out ideas. Learning.

These observations did not sit well with the Expert. She suggested that my ideas were "outdated"—and noted that her (Gates-funded) national organization was able to secure classroom visits. Perhaps so. But teachers should be able to express their own, unfiltered ideas about best educational practice and policy without hired mediation.

Now—I'd never turn down a politician's visit, if offered. But if individual educators want to talk to policy-makers, they're better off visiting them, on their own turf, with an appointment and a detailed, well-researched issue agenda. The definition of "policymaker" should also be expanded to include school board members and local administrators who make the most relevant, impactful policies on teachers' work. Some of those people will come to your classroom—and some of those visits may be immediately productive.

Here's another idea: ask parents to come to your classroom, often. Not just for programs and special events, but to become part of the action: assisting small children, leading a discussion, observing a lesson on single-variable equations and working the problems, or sorting and filing music.

I understand that parents in the classroom can become problematic—easily. But if we want to preserve and impact the future of public education, satisfied parents are our best ally and can be a major influence on political candidates and issues. They're potential voters.

Opening the doors of your classroom is both exhilarating and terrifying. But it's something a would-be teacher leader must learn to embrace. Start small.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

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