By Jenifer Hummer
“Because of you, I failed the Math A regents . . .” my student belted out during class—her version of the popular Kelley Clarkson song “Because of You.” I was more offended because I wasn’t a fan of the song than I was by her parody. We both knew that it wasn’t my fault that she failed the Math A regents. Eventually she passed the Math A regents and recently earned her Bachelor’s degree. As a Haitian immigrant who grew up in the projects, she overcame the odds just like I knew she would.
Unfortunately, I don’t know that life has turned out as well for all of my students. They are the reasons I started teaching, and they are what fuels my passion for education policy. Teaching became more challenging each year due to new policies, curriculum changes, larger class sizes, and an overabundance of standardized testing. I was overwhelmed with classroom and administrative duties, so my advocacy efforts did not go beyond telling friends and family about what was happening inside schools and posting a plethora of information on social media.
Some people appreciated my efforts to inform, but others just saw me as another complaining teacher who did not work summers. But I just wanted people to know that my amazing students deserved better. They were more than standardized test scores, and their ability to pass was beyond teachers’ control. Alas this year, I was able to shed my responsibility of administering the New York State Regents exams and instead attend ASCD’s Leadership Institute for Legislative Advocacy (LILA). What did I expect to learn? What did I expect to accomplish? Did I really think any politicians would listen to me?
In the days leading up to the conference, I did not have any answers. I hoped that I would learn something new that would help me make a difference in the lives of students. Education legislation has a major effect on what happens at the school level, and right now many of our schools and students are in trouble. After reflecting on my time at LILA, I can say that I learned many things, I accomplished many things, and I really hope that at least one politician is considering what we had to say.
During the conference, I learned about current education legislation occurring at the federal level and ASCD’s agenda for improving that legislation. I learned how to turn a presentation into a story, and I learned how to advocate for education with confidence, clarity, and without complaining. I also learned that there are many avenues for contacting legislators at the local, state, and federal levels. Given the right team and a little organization, it is also possible to meet with them in person. I am hoping to become more involved in local advocacy, and I have been taking note of which New York City Council members may be interested in helping out schools.
One might wonder what a professional can possibly accomplish at a conference besides professional learning and networking? While I did plenty of networking, I feel that ASCD provided us an opportunity to go beyond superficial networking and bond with our fellow educators. There is something powerful about being in a room with dozens of people who share the same passion. Then, in one day, people from 33 states met with congressional representatives to tell them stories and share ASCD’s legislative policy. Some of us met with legislative aids and assistants, and others met with senators and representatives. I believe that having such a large presence on Capitol Hill was powerful. I am confident that legislators reviewed the notes and information that we left them, and perhaps our visits even came up in conversation over the lunch table. This advocacy is critical in a time when education is, more than ever, at the forefront of policy. It is crucial that educators become involved in the legislative process so that we can all tell more student success stories.
I now have a better understanding of how to work with local and state legislators. I am hoping to be a part of advocacy groups with ASCD in New York City and New York State in the near future. I also want to help schools in the network I support to build relationships with local city council members who may be able to get additional funding for their schools.
Prior to attending LILA, I was a frustrated but passionate educator who wanted to influence change in education policy. At the heart of this passion are my students. I want to be able to tell more stories about students who are earning college degrees and working in engaging careers. I was not sure how to channel that passion in a productive manner. After attending LILA, I believe that I am part of a movement that will influence positive change in education policy. I am also prepared and empowered to be a better advocate for education.
Jenifer Hummer is an education administrator achievement coach supporting 24 New York City public schools in the areas of mathematics instruction, assessment, programming/scheduling, academic policy, and data analysis. Prior to her current role, she taught high school mathematics in Title I schools in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is passionate about improving mathematics education and advocating for education policy that creates opportunities for all students.