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Advice for Teachers on Talking to Policymakers

Sandy Merz

I'm a teacher-leader. I think teachers, the membrane through which politics become practice, should influence policy. At the Arizona Stories from School Blog, I wrote a series on teachers who became policymakers (part 1, 2, and 3). As a member of the Arizona TeacherSolutions team, I've helped facilitate at the Arizona K12 Center's Leadership Institute.

But I'm a fake. Other than one presentation to my school board, I've never spoken to policymakers beyond my school site. It's time to weigh in on an issue that enhances or hinders learning in my classroom. But I need to learn how to access policymakers and how to be heard.

To begin, I called the local offices of Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Congressman Ron Barber, who was elected to the seat held by Gabrielle Giffords. I asked, "Among all the calls and letters that [the Senator or Congressman] receives, what do the ones that stay in his mind have in common?

They didn't answer that question but offered great advice on access. Congressman Barber's staffer told me I could attend a "Congress on the Corner" event and have a five minute meeting with the congressman. He said other states had similar events.

Senator McCain's office has an outreach coordinator with whom citizen groups can meet. Groups may range in size from 10 to 100. The staffer said to put the group's concerns in writing, and that an appropriate staff member would follow up and schedule a meeting.

Next, I talked with Kristie Martorelli, the 2012 Arizona State Teacher of the Year. Kristie had specific advice for talking with policymakers. First, she said, remember, "No one got into politics to do what's bad for kids." Try to start on the same page; for example, if you disagree with the politician's stand, acknowledge the intent.

Be ready, be concise, and have a hook. Completely know and understand the issue, she advised. Politics are adversarial by nature, and policymakers are prepared to defend their stands and look for weaknesses in opponents' arguments.

"Avoid starting with money or unions," Kristie cautioned. And don't go negative. Show passion but limit emotion, and keep in mind that statistics and data can carry the day. But making it personal with a story about a specific child can be powerful.

Regarding access, Kristie suggested talking to people your policymaker listens to. Consider, for example, meeting with the Chamber of Commerce, business associations, or active nonprofits. Attend conferences, even those unrelated to education, with the intent of making connections and finding allies.

Kristie addded you can learn a lot by attending meetings of your state's Education Commission or school board. Some states and districts stream the meetings live. At a minimum, find the agendas, notes, or minutes of meetings. Bottom line: Know what policymakers are doing and saying to leverage what you do and say.

I'm pumped and have an issue. It's time.

August (Sandy) Merz III, a National Board-certified teacher, teaches engineering and algebra and sponsors MESA at Safford K-8 International Baccalaureate Candidate School in Tucson, Ariz.

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