Everything I Needed to Know To Be a Policy Advocate, I Learned in the Music Room

This post welcomes authors Josh Kaufmann, Jessica Kwasny and Keira Quintero from Teach Plus Illinois, an organization that works to empower excellent, experienced teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that affect their students’ success. This feature originally appeared in the Fall 2018 Illinois Music Educator Journal. If you’d like to receive the Illinois Music Educator Journal, please contact [email protected] for membership or subscription information!

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The bridge on a cello breaks fifteen minutes before the sixth grade orchestra concert begins. Twenty-two kindergarteners walk into the classroom, exploding with energy and itching to play the percussion instruments neatly laid out at the carpet’s edge. The principal wants to repurpose the school’s only music room into a classroom and suggests that music should be taught off of a cart. As music educators, we do not even bat an eye at these situations. We have been trained to organize children’s frenetic energy into purposeful music making, to problem solve on the fly, to not break a sweat while continuing to conduct an ensemble and to advocate for the importance of our music programs. 

It might not be obvious, but these skills translate well into the skills needed to be involved in education policy. Organizing excited students is analogous to building alliances around policy changes. Instead of fixing instruments or covering parts for sick students, policy problem solving focuses on finding solutions for educational inequity and lack of opportunity. Advocating for our music programs transposes to advocating for our students, both within the music program and in the larger educational setting. 

As music teachers, we often say that we teach humans first and music second. In the same spirit, as we approach policy, we need to advocate for policies that not only benefit the music program, but also ensure that students, both in our classrooms and throughout the state, are receiving an education that addresses their needs. It is our responsibility to apply the skills we have honed as music educators to shape policies inside and outside of music education so they better serve our students and to rally our colleagues to do the same.

The authors are all arts teachers who saw problems that seemed beyond our ability to address from the music room, art studio or theatre. Fortunately, we have all been involved with the Teach Plus Policy Fellowship, which helps teachers translate their skills as educators into skills as policy advocates. For example, as a teacher entering her eighth year, Keira wanted to help eliminate punitive, exclusionary disciplinary practices in schools. She surveyed teachers about discipline practices, shared her findings with legislators and was invited to coauthor legislation to address the issues that she and other teachers raised. 

The journey from teacher to policy advocate involves several steps: 

Learn About the Policy Environment
Teach Plus keeps us regularly informed about potential policy changes that affect us and our students. Other organizations in our state that provide teacher leadership opportunities, such as Advance Illinois and Educators for Excellence, also regularly send policy-related emails. There are many organizations that share information about policy issues through newsletters, blogs and Twitter. 

Both state teachers unions - the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) - also regularly update members on policies and legislation that will affect schools, teachers and/or students. Reading the emails from your state union is an excellent way to start briefing yourself on current policy opportunities. Journalism websites such as www.edweek.org and www.topsheet.com are venues to learn more about the intricacies of education policy in our state and at the national level.

Recent education policy flashpoints in Illinois include the school funding reform bill, passed in 2017 to establish a more equitable funding formula for Illinois schools; SB100, the school discipline reform bill; and the new Illinois Arts Indicator, which is part of Illinois’ plan under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Two fellows, Jessica and Keira, both serve on the statewide committee of stakeholders who are developing this indicator.

Policy work also happens at the district level. Educators can stay up to date with local policies by reading local newspapers, minutes of the board of education meetings and staying up to date with the communications from their local union, which usually informs teachers about local policy issues. 

Identify Windows of Opportunity
As a teacher, your voice is important. Policymakers often have little knowledge of education. They need to hear from you to ensure their legislation addresses what you and your students need and to avoid unintended consequences which do not serve all students well. 

One way to ensure that your voice is heard is to find windows of opportunity early in the policymaking process. When policymakers are considering changes, they are often very open to hearing from teachers in the field about what works, what doesn’t and what could be improved (See sidebar). 

Once a policy has been proposed, you can continue to influence the process:

  • Testify at a committee or school board hearing to explain why you support or oppose the policy and what effect it would have on your classroom.

  • Reach out to your legislator or a school board members to meet with them one-on-one and share your concerns - many legislators are open to hearing directly from constituent teachers on education issues.

  • Raise your voice by writing an op-ed for your local newspaper.

Find Your Allies
Find like-minded colleagues who can do policy work with you. Build relationships with teachers outside of the fine arts department. Your knowledge of policies that impact your students will grow as you learn from classroom teachers. 

As you build these relationships, listen carefully to the stresses your colleagues face. Some stressors may be the same as those we face in the music classroom, but some will differ drastically. Listen without making assumptions or passing judgment. Our place as allies is to support each other and work as a team to improve our students’ educational experiences, not to compete for a place in the school’s pecking order. Working as a team will deliver more benefits to students than infighting. As much as we want and deserve to have the support of our classroom teacher colleagues, they deserve to have our support as well.

Be Solution-Oriented and Advocate for Your Students
As teachers, we care deeply about our students, their learning and their well-being. Harness this deep concern for our students and direct it to solution-oriented problem-solving with our allies. Share your ideas, actively listen and collaborate to craft solutions. Decision makers, from principals to school board presidents to governors, deal with complex problems every day. If you can bring to them not only a problem but a proposed solution, they will be much more receptive to your ideas.

When you and your allies have agreed on a solution to the problem you see, develop your plan for pushing for this change:

  • Make sure you know whom to approach: local policy is not going to be addressed by a state representative and your principal likely cannot influence state policy.

  • The conversation with policymakers must be student-focused; after all, students are at the heart of what we do each day. Clearly present the problem you are seeking to resolve using a story about a student. This story should explain how the current or proposed policy affects students.

  • Next, present the solution you and your allies have crafted and listen carefully to the policymaker’s response. If your proposed solution will cost money, be ready to justify why your solution is more important than spending money on other priorities.

  • Regardless of whether the meeting ends positively or negatively, do your best to keep the line of communication open by providing your contact information.

  • Offer to continue meeting to work on a solution to the problem and make sure you thank the policymaker for their time. Changing policy takes time and respectful persistence, so do not be dissuaded if a single meeting does not result in the change you are pursuing. We don’t give up on our students after a single attempt to teach them a concept! Instead, we diligently work with them until they have mastery and we need the same approach when working on policy change.

Imagine a New Role as a Policy Advocate
You’ve conducted over a hundred students at once and your audience has heard beautiful music. You’ve differentiated for a classroom full of instruments and abilities levels all at the same time like a champ. You’ve instilled a love of music in students that they will carry with them through their life. Now, you can translate those skills by envisioning yourself as a teacher leader whose voice and ideas should shape the next generation of policies for students. So the next time an issue arises in your school or district that you think may impact students, raise your voice, build allies and work together to create the schools that our students deserve.

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Josh Kaufmann has been an educator for 17 years. He is currently the Executive Director of Teach Plus Illinois, where he works with teachers around the state to ensure their voices are incorporated into policy. He taught English and theatre for seven years. He earned his BA in Theater from the University of Iowa and a Master in Public Administration from Syracuse University.

Jessica Kwasny is in her seventh year of teaching elementary and middle school general music in CCSD 64 in Park Ridge, IL. She also directs an elementary school chorus. She earned her BME from DePauw University and her MMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is a 2017-2018 Illinois Teach Plus Teaching Policy alumna.

Keira Quintero is entering her eleventh year as a K-5 general music teacher. She has taught in Yorkville and Glen Ellyn and currently teaches in Oak Park. She has a BA in Music Education from Elmhurst College and a MA in Educational Leadership from Aurora University. She is a 2016-2017 Illinois Teach Plus Teaching Policy alumna.