What Makes a Teacher of the Year Run for Political Office?
Teachers across the state of Arizona have confided in Christine Porter Marsh, the state's 2016 teacher of the year, about how frustrated they are—how they have to work a second or third job to survive on their teacher salary; how they have unmanageably large class sizes; how they often have to make the "gut-wrenching decision" to leave teaching because of the state's education policies.
So, Marsh, a high school teacher with 25 years of experience, decided to run for political office.
"I figured I was going to lose sleep if I ran or didn't run, and I figured I'd rather lose sleep running and trying to make a few positive changes, than not run and be in a position of powerlessness," Marsh said in an interview with Education Week Teacher.
She announced in late May that she will run as a Democrat for a state Senate seat, challenging the Republican incumbent during the 2018 elections.
"Being teacher of the year gave me an even broader perspective of what's going on in Arizona," she said. "I knew it was bad ... but I didn't know that it was as bad as it actually is until I was teacher of the year."
Marsh joins a small club of state teachers of the year who have had political ambitions. She says she was inspired by Shawn Sheehan, who was Oklahoma's teacher of the year in 2016. Sheehan ran as an independent for a state Senate seat in 2016, along with more than 40 teachers who also ran for state office. About five of those teachers won their races; Sheehan did not.
The National Network of State Teachers of the Year has tracked two other state teachers of the year who have recently run for office: Bob Williams, the 2009 Alaska teacher of the year; and Jeffrey Hinton, who received the honor for Nevada in 2014.
Williams was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Alaska in the 2014 elections, and Hinton was the Democratic candidate for the state Assembly, also in 2014. Neither won their races.
'Education Is Political'
It's not uncommon for teachers to run for political office. There are several former teachers in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and news reports consistently highlight other teachers with state or local political ambitions. But teachers of the year are in a unique position: They have a firsthand look at the challenges facing public education in their state from both their classroom and as a statewide teacher-leader. They have a ready-made opportunity to visit schools across the state, speak at summits and conferences, and talk to policymakers and other stakeholders. And they've been recognized for the quality of their teaching, so they have stronger credentials when speaking on education matters.
"It's a year of recognition, you get in the spotlight," Williams said. "It also stresses the responsibility of speaking up and representing the profession, and representing the profession well."
Sheehan said that during his tenure as Oklahoma's Teacher of the Year, he traveled the state and had over 100 speaking engagements. It opened his eyes to the political nature of teaching.
"I felt pulled into the politics of education more and more. ... Education really is political," he said. "I had no idea this was the case. I had no idea that wanting to educate the masses is a political act."
During a workshop where state teachers of the year learned how to talk to elected representatives, Nevada's Hinton thought: "Hey, why should teachers be explaining to policymakers how important education is? Why aren't there more teachers involved in the political process? Maybe this is how I make my mark as the state teacher of the year. Maybe this is how I use this gift."
"Becoming a state teacher of the year broadens one's perspective and possibilities," Hinton continued. "You have this chance to become an influencer. What are you going to do with it?"
Teachers on the Campaign Trail
For Marsh, one of her priorities in her education platform is reducing class sizes, which she has been outspoken about for years. In a recent blog post, she asserted: "Smaller class sizes is the single most important factor in determining the fate of students. I can impact 25 students far more successfully than I can impact 40 students."
Arizona has a student-teacher ratio of 23:1, compared to the U.S. ratio of 16:1. Last year, the Learning Policy Institute gave Arizona the lowest teaching attractiveness rating, citing the state's large class sizes and low teacher pay.
Still, Marsh said that part of starting her campaign so early was so that she could see which of her ideas resonate with voters. "I would be a representative of the people, so their views would matter as well," she said.
Balancing an insider's view of education policy with a broad appeal to voters can be tricky, Hinton said.
"One of the discouraging aspects about getting out there and trying to make connections with my constitutents and neighbors was how little it seemed people cared about education," he said. Voters wanted to hear about taxes, job creation, and other "kitchen table issues."
"But my passion is education. That's what I wanted to talk about," Hinton said.
And even when voters did care about education, they were often seeking a simple answer to complex questions like, "How are you going to make schools better?," instead of a nuanced conversation, Hinton said.
Also, both campaigning and teaching are time-consuming, making it a grueling job to run as an active classroom teacher. Hinton said that during the campaign, he felt like he couldn't be the best teacher or father.
"I was literally canvassing 20 hours a week. I got home from school, put on my walking shoes, got out and started knocking on doors. It's 113 degrees—I'd get home and just be exhausted," he said.
"The next 16 months are no doubt going to be hard," Marsh said, adding that her friends and family are "accepting of the fact that there's not going to be much besides campaigning and teaching."
Ultimately, she said, "My students can't suffer. That means other people are going to have to be picking up campaign slack."
A Special Skillset
"One of my biggest goals is to make sure that I finish this campaign being able to look my students in the eyes," Marsh said, adding that she cannot run a negative campaign. The experience, she said, will hopefully have a positive impact on her life and in her classroom.
Hinton said the campaign experience made him grow as a person and a teacher. Knocking on doors and asking people for money forced him out of his comfort zone and improved his public speaking skills.
He, like Sheehan (who has since moved to Texas for a better-paying job), would not rule out another political run in the future.
After all, much of what teachers do in the classroom—working hard, having clear communication, building a welcoming and safe community—would translate well to public office, they say.
"The skills that make effective educators in the classroom translate very well to other leadership roles," said Williams, who is now the director of educator and school excellence at Alaska's department of education. "I think sometimes teachers sell themselves short; they say, 'I'm just a teacher.' Teachers deal with conflict. Teachers deal with building trust all the time."
Image: Education Week file photo of a voting booth in a school cafeteria.