The Personal is Political, and My Feet Didn’t Even Reach the Floor

This year’s legislative session is over, and all around the state, local schools are now dealing with the effects of the state budget.  Looking back at decisions the legislators made, teachers have had a range of reactions.  Many teachers, thinking about the immediate local repercussions, and also thinking ahead to next year’s legislative session, have vowed, “We’ll make our voice heard.” Even in the past week, I have heard this more and more as teachers have brainstormed a number of ways to get our messages out.

How do we make our voices heard?  Through communication with our communities. When thinking of community, we should think both big and small, both local and state.  Our local communities need to understand the impact decisions are having, and our decision makers need input from teachers in order to make well informed choices.  

In communicating, our personal stories can make our political points clear.  The personal is political: it is our personal stories from the classroom that can inform and sway decisions affecting education. What’s my point here?  Let’s get out there and send our messages.  How am I going to make that point? By telling a personal story.

Earlier this spring, I drove down to Olympia.  This was to be a two day mission.  The first day, a team effort: another teacher from my district and I would meet personally with each of our three legislators to discuss full funding of teaching and learning.   The second day, I would testify before a legislative committee about changing the science assessment graduation requirement.

I had been to Olympia previously, of course—I have lived in Washington my entire life.  My previous legislative building experience, however, was somewhat limited.  My most vivid memory from under the dome was as a fourth grader, standing around George Washington’s shiny bronze face on the floor with a tour group, my brother daring me to put a foot under the velvet rope and plant it straight on George’s nose.  I don’t think I listened to my brother then, but I was certainly more respectful this time under the rotunda!  We were there on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the other teacher had actually watched his “I have a dream” speech in person as a child.  It seemed fitting to celebrate MLK day by advocating for education.

I have to admit that I was somewhat nervous about coming with my own message to meet face to face with lawmakers.  However, the issues were important, and I was excited to go!  I met the other teacher from my district in the Dome Deli—the legislative building cafeteria.  We went over our message, and then it was time for our first meeting.  Up a stairs and through a door, we found ourselves in a much fancier cafeteria than the Dome Deli.  It was full of serious looking people in dark suits.  Oops!  The sign above read, “House Locker Room.”  It certainly bore no resemblance to my high school’s locker room—we were in the private quarters of the House.  Yes, it could have been the ideal lobbying opportunity given the number of representatives present, but we figured we better find the fastest way out.  We tried the door—some sort of automatic locking mechanism prevented our exit.  One of the representatives pointed to a discrete button off to the right, and we were out.

Up the other stairs, across the senate floor, and through a rabbit warren maze of grey marble we made our way to our first meeting.   As soon as we were in the senator’s office, all anxiety eased and we were ready to talk.  The other teacher and I shared our positions on K-12 funding, National Board Certification, and science assessment.  The senator was definitely not in full agreement and asked a very pointed question.  The other teacher and I related some classroom anecdotes.  Guess what?  He really liked the point our stories made.  He related them to an issue in his own children’s education, and said it gave him something to think about. 

Next, we rushed down the stairs and out to a portable in the parking lot to meet a representative.  Yes, the legislature has portables, and they are no different from the portables at any school.  We chatted with the representative about a mutual acquaintance and shared our stories and issues.  Finally, back up to the fourth floor of the legislative building to meet the final representative.  He had an intern shadowing him for the day.  There was lots of friendly chatting with both the intern and the representative—this legislator seemed to be in almost complete agreement with everything we said. 

My plan for the next day, to testify before a legislative committee, was more formal and came with a slightly higher level of anxiety.  The day of individual meetings with legislators, however, without a doubt helped me feel more at ease.  I had also attended a committee meeting the day before to get a feel for the situation. 

The committee room was long and thin, and several hundred people gathered in it—a major budget hearing was also on the room’s agenda for the day.  The front of the room was dominated by the tall stair step dais and the seated legislators.  At the top level of the dais sat the chairperson.  With a rap of the gavel, the Chair brought the meeting to order, and this Chair ran a tight meeting. 

My turn came.  I was seated in front of the room at a table at the base of the dais, looking up at the committee.  Instead of the old fashioned large hook on a long pole to get people off the stage, a three way light was off to the side—green meant go ahead and talk, yellow meant hurry up, and red meant it’s over.  The TVW cameras and microphones were going. 

There was one issue—I am rather short.  The chair was too big for me, and my feet did not reach the floor!  Sitting there with my feet swinging below me, looking up to the top of the dais, I felt just like a little kid.  I thought about trying to adjust it, but we have a similar chair at home, and every time I try to adjust that one, the seat swings up and pushes me forward.  I did not want to launch myself out of my chair in front of the gathered crowd, so I just let it be.  I tried not to fidget too much in the oversize chair during my testimony—but next time I think I’ll just take the time to adjust it! 

Overall, the testimony went well.  At one point, I said I supported a certain elected official’s position on science assessment.  The stern chairperson interrupted me, looking rather severe, “Excuse me, Ms. Johnson…” and explained that this meeting was not the time to support or oppose specific bills—it was rather for more general positions.  Well, OK then—clearly it was time to convey my message through classroom stories.  I regained my composure and went on.  The legislators asked me a number of questions at the end, and I came back the following week to testify at a similar hearing.

My impression of the two days?  It was fun.  Definitely a new experience and I learned a lot.  I also felt as though what we were doing was making a positive difference for education in Washington state.  Legislators seemed very interested in hearing from classroom teachers.  I think our local communities are as well.  I believe our voice can be heard—we just need to speak out!