Teachers as Trustees, Part 2
InterACT Guest Blog Post by Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez
InterACT features many blog posts on the topic of teacher leadership, but very few teachers are able to view the field from the perspective of elected office – especially one held concurrently with their teaching position. This guest blog post is number two in a series of three. The prior installment in this InterACT series was written by Christopher Chiang, and Part 3 is coming soon!
This post comes to us from Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, an elementary teacher in the Folsom-Cordova School District and a school board trustee in her home district, Washington Unified School District, in West Sacramento. She wrote this guest post for InterACT, and was also featured recently in California Educator. (By the way, that link features information about several other teachers on school boards).
Like many educators, I have been baffled by some education policy put in place by people who clearly don’t have an understanding of how things will play out in the day-to-day workings of a classroom. In frustration, I explored ways to be a teacher leader and set long-term goals.
Last year I found a special election for school board would be happening in my town, and the mayor was holding an information session. I didn’t think it was my time, but went to the meeting for more information and to show my interest. According to Emerge California’s website, “women are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office and are less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.” It took me sitting in that room and looking at the other potential candidates to realize I was absolutely qualified to run for school board, now. When I heard that someone who worked at Michelle Rhee’s organization, Students First, was running and would probably be the mayor’s candidate it only motivated me further. There was absolutely no way I wanted my daughter, or any child, in a district where questionable philosophies of folks in “edreform” were making their way into local policy decisions. Running for school board was a lot of work; in the end I was outspent 2:1. However, the hard work paid off and we won every precinct, despite the odds. I found voters were eager to support a teacher, and intuitively understood the importance of a teacher’s voice in this role.
Teachers have a unique perspective on the school board. We know what high-quality professional development looks like, and what it’s like to have our time wasted sitting in subpar training. Working with educators in other districts as well as throughout the state gives us a sense of the big picture and keeps us connected to what others are doing. We also know that the impact on student learning is our highest priority, and that good teaching and learning can look messy. I draw on these experiences and knowledge when making decisions, and there have been a number of times I’ve felt my perspective as an educator has made a difference on the outcome of board votes.
A single board member cannot make change – there needs to be a majority of votes to get anything accomplished. Since it’s a violation of the Brown Act to talk with more than one member outside of the board room about a particular issue, you have to make your case in the board room and persuade people who may not see the world the way you do. This job is much easier when you have colleagues who come to the table with an open mind, and this is why it’s so critical that teachers play a part in the process and help get board members elected.
Being on school board has carried over into my life as a teacher. I know there have been times I complained of policy, but never reached out to those making it. When we fail to communicate our concerns with board members, we can’t blame them for not understanding the issues before they vote. Educators also need to look at the big picture, and fight for lasting change, not simply the school-year calendar or other topics that don’t have much bearing in the scheme of things. Not only do we need to reach out to board members when we have concerns and issues, but also when things are going well. If they recently approved a new position or program and great things are happening as a result, let them know! They need to hear from us.
I’ll end with a plea to those of you who teach in different cities from where you live. Conflict-of-interest laws prohibit teachers from serving in the districts where they work. If you live elsewhere, consider running for school board. You can make a difference, and your voice is needed.