By Rebecca Gagnon
Last year I had the amazing fortune to attend ASCD’s Leadership Institute for Legislative Advocacy (LILA) for the first time. Although I had seen the agenda, read the pre-conference information, and talked to others who had attended in the past, I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Looking back on the experience, I realize nothing could have fully prepared me for the spontaneous and surreal moments I would experience. For me, the conference had some noteworthy moments: having my picture taken with Arne Duncan, getting a behind-the-scenes tour of Capitol Hill, and watching one of my state’s legislators testify from a top side gallery. There were also some lasting takeaways that continue to strengthen the work that I do as an educator. Here are the top four lessons I learned from last year’s LILA.
I come from a small state where people in education tend to know each other. When I attended LILA, I quickly felt like my role as an educator was just a mere speck in the grand scheme of education in our country. Yet I had a voice at LILA and the opportunity to use my voice to affect change—or at least I had the opportunity to put a name and face to my voice in front of policymakers. What’s more, I have been in touch with my legislators’ offices since attending LILA and now feel comfortable picking up the phone, sending correspondence, or extending invitations to have others share in the good work that takes place in our schools every day.
2. I Am Not Alone in My Thoughts, Ideals, and Struggles
In my effort to stay current on best practices, I do a lot of reading. While this is helpful, it’s also solitary. There are not too many opportunities in my day-to-day life to stop and share ideas or theories with people outside of my school. Many of the meals and informal sessions at LILA are designed to help attendees build connections with educators from other states and schools. It was great fun learning about how a principal from a huge New York City school was grappling with teacher evaluations (just like I am) or how a suburban Massachusetts middle school was trying to design a schedule to reflect a true RTI model (just like I am).
3. There Is Merit to the Perfect Elevator Speech
A highlight of LILA is the culminating trip to Capitol Hill to meet with state legislators. Sessions during the conference helped me craft the education topic I wanted to focus on during my visit. When the awe of being on Capitol Hill really set in, it helped to have a well-honed message and talking points to support my stance. Since coming back home from LILA, I have actually used the techniques I learned to develop a concise message on different projects happening in my school—from piloting a new parent-teacher conference scheduling software to justifying needs in our school budget to voters.
4. Politics Does Have a Fun Side
Our trip to Capitol Hill was on the same day that President Obama would be delivering his State of the Union address. As luck would have it, I was walking down a hallway with one of my state representatives when we crossed paths with a representative from another state. It’s tough to describe the humor of watching these two ladies talk about the most common of things—from what they would be wearing that night to who was going to sit with whom to what they were going to eat for lunch. Later that night, as I watched the speech from the comfort of my own home, it was hard to believe I was there just a few hours earlier witnessing many of the same legislators give speeches in the rotunda.
I’m grateful for the experiences LILA afforded me, and I can’t wait to attend LILA again. I know this interactive conference will help me continue to grow as both an educator and an advocate for education. LILA 2015 will be held January 25–27 in Washington, D.C. Learn more and register today for your own opportunity to connect the dots between policy and practice.
Rebecca Gagnon is the Assistant Principal for Hopkinton Middle High School in New Hampshire and is president-elect and a board member for New Hampshire ASCD.