Growing up, I never wanted to be a teacher. My parents were both teachers, my aunt and uncle were teachers, my grandma was a teacher, my great aunt was a teacher. Not me, I wanted none of it.
After graduating from college, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I joined the Peace Corps. I applied to be an agricultural volunteer to help small farmers, but instead, I was assigned to be a math teacher for two years in Guinea, West Africa. I taught in a small town in the rain forest on the border with Liberia. Before the Peace Corps, there was no math teacher at my school.
The school was built of mud bricks that one of the Guinean teachers had made himself. The first time I saw my school, I noticed a small shed-like building off to the side that I assumed were the latrines. No, that turned out to be the administrative office. There was no electricity or running water: all light came in through windows that were just openings in the walls. The “faculty lounge” consisted of a bamboo bench under a tree, where, indeed, I would sit with the other teachers waiting for school to start each day with a grand ceremony of flag raising, singing the Guinean national anthem, and announcements.
Each morning before school, the principal would sign our lesson plans and then hand us our daily allotment of chalk--the amount of chalk issued to each teacher depended on the length of the lesson plan and the current chalk supplies of the school. Talk under the tree, of course, sometimes turned to speculation about whether some teachers were getting more chalk than others. In any case, even chalk, basically the only school supply we had, was a scarce commodity.
My students didn’t have much—what they did have, however, was access to a basic education. I realized that through teaching math, I was making a huge difference for these students, and I decided teaching was for me. I got my teaching certificate right after leaving the Peace Corps, and since then I have been a high school science teacher at a small public high school on the Olympic Peninsula.
In sharp contrast to all of this, I spent a week this summer at one of the most exclusive private boarding schools in our country, in New England, for a biology professional development event. This wasn’t any neighborhood private school—there were stately old brick buildings, manicured lawns, lobsters in the dining hall. The science department had a scanning electron microscope—and we got to use it. Too cool. The professional development was outstanding—I learned much that I will use this year at school. The contrast, however, between the New England private school and the school I taught at in Guinea, or, frankly, the school I teach at now, is so great it is difficult to think about.
I also spent quite a bit of time with the other teachers at the summer event—they came from some fairly tony private schools from, literally, all over the Western hemisphere. The teacher talk in this group of teachers was quite a bit different from the teacher talk I hear among my fellow teachers here at home. There was a striking lack of discussion of resources or policy relating to education. There was not any budget discussion, no mention of standardized tests, no talk of state or national standards, as they just don’t apply to most private schools. No one mentioned a lack of chalk.
It’s not that this group of teachers was not caring or concerned: it’s just that the problems faced by public education were completely off their radar. Who knows what is going on in our public schools? Those of us who are there. Because of this, it is up to us who work in the public schools to continue to advocate for them. Washington state's Professional Educator Standards Board states that educators should "advocate for curriculum, instruction and learning environments that meet the diverse needs of each student."
Making the mud bricks to build a school, as my colleague did in Guinea, is clearly one form of advocacy. Another form of advocacy? This past summer, a group of teachers, custodians, and maintenance in my area met with a legislator to discuss education issues. If not us, then who?
The reason teachers can be convincing advocates is that they work every day with students. The problem, of course, with having teachers involved in advocacy work is that they *are* teachers. With teaching jobs. Teachers have an important job to do right there in their classrooms, but yet if teachers never leave their classrooms no one will ever hear from them, so every now and then we’ve got to get out there. With the fall elections and the upcoming legislative session, there’s going to be a lot of opportunities to get involved: pick something and do it!