As a new teacher, I was schooled on politics

As this year’s election nears, I remember the early years of being a teacher. During election season, I remember how often veteran teachers in my building would talk politics in the teachers’ lounge. I am a social studies teacher by certification and a political junkie by nature, so I always appreciate political discussions.

The discussions in the teachers’ lounge down the hall often times involved politics, especially education. It was interesting, but I tried to change the topic to economics or foreign policy. More often than not, the discussion shifted back to politics and education. I couldn’t understand why.

One day after school, a veteran teacher friend pulled me into his classroom.

“Why do you think we talk about the role of politics in education so much?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think that politicians just talk about education and say things like ‘Good schools are important’ but they don’t really do anything else. When I close my door and teach, I’m in control of my classroom, not politicians. Their decisions have no effect on how I do my job.”

My friend looked me in the eye with an intensity I hadn’t seen before.

“When you close your door,” he responded, slowly and thoughtfully, “the politicians are already in charge. Their decisions have an effect on nearly every aspect of your job.”

Young and stubborn, I didn’t want to believe him. I shook my head in denial.

“Think about it,” he continued. “The textbooks you teach from behind that closed door were purchased from money raised by a recent levy that the voters passed.  Our school board voted to put the levy on the ballot, and they also approved the purchase of those textbooks. It’s because of the levy that you still have a job. But your job is affected by more than just those district-level political decisions.”

“The district creates the curriculum we teach our students based on the state content standards. Those standards were adopted by a vote of the elected state board of education. Let’s be honest—what we really focus on in the classroom is what is on the Ohio Graduation Test.”

“All of the achievement tests that the state forces our students take were created by legislation passed by members of the Ohio House and Senate. The Ohio House and Senate passed laws that specified everything about those tests.”

“All those tests came about because of No Child Left Behind’s passage in 2002. That law mandated all this endless testing for our students. The Ohio Legislature passed all these laws about testing because we wouldn’t be eligible for federal money that comes with NCLB. Don’t forget Ohio Senators and Representatives voted in the US Congress to send that legislation to the President for his signature.”

His voice took on a more urgent tone.

“Make no mistake about this— every aspect of your job is to some degree decided by politicians. Things like teaching credentials, the subject and content you teach, what kind of a pension State Teachers’ Retirement System will provide for you; those are all things decided by politicians. Many of them were never teachers and therefore won’t understand what we need to help our students succeed unless we tell. We need friends of education at every level of government.”

“You mean Democrats?” I asked.

“No,” he said emphatically. “There’s a misconception that teachers just vote for Democrats. That’s not true. The defining factor of whether or not a politician is a true friend of education is their stance on the issues that will affect our ability to educate our students. Their political party is irrelevant.”

“What else can we do besides vote?” I asked.

“Call or meet with the politicians that represent you and talk to them,” he said. “Even if they’re in a different political party than yours, they still need to hear from you. Write letters to the editors of newspapers and explain what our job entails. Talk to your neighbors; even other teacher friends.”

“How long have you been doing these things?” I asked.

“As long as I can remember,” he said. “I’ll keep doing it until I retire. When politicians get out of education, then this educator will get out of politics.”

By Phil Hayes, Columbus Education Association

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