Students have complex, varying needs — some of which they can voice for themselves, some of which may be less visible or difficult to meet. While many students are becoming champions of articulating and fighting for their own needs (often, with the help of supportive teachers!) they often ultimately need adults to advocate for them. Educators are in a unique position to both identify and understand student needs and advocate for their students to receive the support they require to thrive.
Many Manning, 2018 National Teacher of the Year, is a role model for many educators who look to influence large-scale change. Here’s what she has to say about public advocacy work:
“Sometimes, we have to leave the classroom to get the things we need for our kids, because at the heart of every teacher is our students. At the heart of every decision is what our students need. It’s very comfortable to be in our classrooms. But, just like my pin says right here, ‘Life happens outside your comfort zone.’ We have to be willing to get uncomfortable and face some of that negative messaging that we might receive in order to really make deep impacts on what we know is best for kids.
If the decisions that are being made are negatively impacting our kids, we cannot sit idly by, even if it means we’re going to face challenges in the community. Because ultimately, if students truly make up the foundation of our arguments about why we are outside the classroom advocating, no one can argue with us.” — Mandy Manning, NEA
Simply listening to your students, believing in them, and providing them with a support system is the first and most important step in advocacy. But this work is by no means easy. Acting as an advocate for students can be overwhelming because properly addressing student needs involves so many stakeholders, systems, and processes — which means you’ll need support along the way. Here are just a few approaches to consider in seeking out advocacy support and finding your voice as an advocate:
Seek Support from Advocacy Organizations
You don’t need to start advocacy work completely from scratch — there are many organizations, national or local, that offer advocacy research, resources, or partnerships. Identifying these organizations can provide you with a foundation for your work, and a touchpoint to direct back to when interacting with other stakeholders. Start by thinking about the specific need you are trying to address for your students, or a range of issues your specific student population faces, and seek out an organization that focuses on those needs for partnership support or resources.
For a simple example: the International Literacy Association (ILA) has developed a full campaign around Children’s Rights to Read, which includes a variety of resources that educators can use to advocate for equitable reading supports in their district. This list of reading rights can be used as a framework for your own advocacy priorities. For more advocacy organizations, check out this list from Getting Smart.
Foster Strong Relationships with School Leadership
Having the ear and support of school leadership will be a key advantage in advocacy work. Principals, for example, are the sort of decision-makers that can alter systems in a particular school (or influence larger systems outside of your school) to positively affect students. But principals are also extremely busy, working to meet a wide variety of needs from students and staff, facing high expectations from all stakeholders. In order to successfully communicate with your principal about advocacy work and get them on board, some educators suggest presenting a few potential solutions to the problem you’re trying to address along with the problem itself. Others suggest that teacher advocates — particularly special education teachers, who engage in a great deal of advocacy work on a daily basis— ensure that school leadership has a thorough understanding of the specific challenges their students face, the processes teachers navigate, and obstacles teachers need to overcome.
Think Creatively About Systems and Processes
It’s likely that some of the challenges your students face have resulted from systems, processes, or policies that don’t meet their needs. These systems may have been designed for specific populations without taking all students’ experiences into account and may be difficult to change. As an individual educator, you can’t be expected to shift established systems on your own. That’s where partnerships with leadership are especially important. Through your advocacy work to change harmful systems, think creatively about how you can propose alternatives or new processes that better support your students.
Our Guiding Principles for Equity in Education, authored by our applied learning sciences team, considers innovative new programs that have appeared in equity research to replace inequitable systems in recent years — check out page 11 of the document for ideas to drive your advocacy work in systems change.
Understanding student needs, forging partnerships with school leaders or organizations, and carefully analyzing institutional systems are all key to advocacy. But at its core, advocating for your students is about making their stories and needs visible on a larger scale by using your own voice. In today’s interconnected world, there are so many ways to make your voice heard, to an audience of decision makers and legislators, or simply to an audience of peers. Twitter or online teacher groups and forums are great places to share your story and find partners in other educators. Many educators also connect through blog posts. If you’re hoping to work effectively with lawmakers, there are a variety of resources to guide you through advocacy work in legislation: the National Association of School Psychologists created this excellent guide to educating lawmakers that’s applicable for any educator. The National Summit for Educational Equity is a great event to attend for support in communicating with policymakers and insights into public policy.
No matter your strategy or approach to advocacy, all of your students will benefit from having such a strong champion of their needs, their futures, and their stories.
For more on advocacy and equity, see: