Advocating for Education: Meeting with Legislators

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Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with 8 New York State Assembly members and Senators in separate meetings at the state capitol. These meetings were arranged by the United University Professions (the SUNY Union), and we met in teams of 4-6 to advocate for specific legislative and budget proposals that would benefit SUNY, primarily SUNY students.

I first met with a state legislator 2 years ago, and I was quite intimidated then. Since 

that first meeting–which went very well–I have met many times with other legislators and members of the state Board of Regents. I have found there is no need to be intimidated, as these meetings are always pleasant. In this post, I provide a few notes about meeting with state representatives to speak up about education and the need for proper support.

There’s a great deal to know about such advocacy efforts, so this is just a start. I’ll write more in the future on this crucially important topic.

5 Things to Expect When Meeting with State Representatives

  1. It is very easy to make an appointment with your state rep. Their staff members are polite and very willing to arrange time to meet with you. Call or email them, and you will receive a response. Be sure to mention that you are a constituent (one who votes in their district) and what your main topic for the meeting is. You may meet your rep in your home district or at the state capitol.
  2. Forget what you see in debates and read in the paper. Legislators are generally very nice people. Politicians are, by definition, charming and social. Even if you are on opposite political sides with a legislator, s/he would prefer that you feel heard and leave with a positive feeling. I’ve met with over a dozen legislators now, and even the most hard-nosed negotiators who disagree with the platforms I’m supporting are pleasant to meet with.
  3. You may meet with a staff member, rather than the congressional member. Don’t feel disappointed. Legislative staff have the ear of the representative and they can often spend more time learning about your issue than the legislator can. Also, staff members are more likely to follow up and stay in touch with you. 
  4. When meeting with a legislator or his or her staff, it’s important that you get your message across, that you are making a specific request for action or support (in advocacy terminology: an “ask”), and that you leave behind some written information and your contact information. Legislators are excellent talkers, so it’s important that you make sure your message gets across. Advocacy is more about educating legislators about things you know, more than it is about demanding action. You’re a teacher; think of legislators as advanced students.
  5.  Advocacy is about building relationships. Even if you don’t get much out of your first meeting, you have made a first step in creating a relationship. The next time you meet with your legislator, you’ll have more common ground. Eventually, the legislator may think of you as someone s/he can draw upon when s/he needs information on issues you have expertise in.

Advocacy is a Now a Crucial Part of Being an Effective Teacher

When I began teaching in 1988, a teacher could pretty much ignore legislative issues and still count on adequate funding and state support–at least in a state like New York. Those days are gone. Profiteers–in the form of pro-voucher groups, many charter school organizations, anti-tax community groups, alternative teacher certification programs, private testing companies, and many others–have made tremendous headway in education policy, and teachers can no longer assume support, or even basic respect,

The Capitol Building in Albany, NY

from legislators and other community leaders.

We teachers must be advocates for our profession, our schools, and–most importantly–our students. Visiting with legislators is one powerful way to get our messages out.

Do you have additional advice or experiences you’d like to share? Please do so in a comment on this post.

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