by Adrienne Johnson
How do you advocate for your English language learners? Maybe you speak up at your school or organization when decision makers have not considered the impacts of rules or practices on your language learners. Perhaps you have created a program in the community that meets an unfilled need for ELL parents or adult learners. It is possible that you focus your energies on providing your ELLs with an excellent education so they have the same opportunities as their native English speaking peers.
These are all forms of advocacy, above and beyond what we often typically think of as advocacy work with policy makers and elected officials.
At this summer’s 2017 TESOL Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C., Diane Staehr Fenner, author of Advocating for English Language Learners, asked, “How do you see your role as an ELL advocate and leader?” I consider myself an ELL “advocate-in-training.” While some of my colleagues may have extensive experience working with political leaders, my advocacy work started in my classroom, my school, and my district. I do not have a degree in public policy, have never interned in a representative’s office, and only began navigating the world of elected officials very recently. Like many teachers, I tried to “stay out of politics” and focus on my students.
The problem was, politics kept affecting me and my students, regardless of whether I was “involved.”
At the recent Advocacy Summit, I shared information about ELL challenges, successes, and opportunities with Senators and staffers representing the MIDTESOL region (see the MIDTESOL Matters Newsletter for a complete list). I also continued my advocacy training and wanted to share a few lessons that I learned.
Lessons learned from an “advocate-in-training”
- If you do not talk to your elected official, someone else will. Staffers and representatives are always busy, but they are also available for meetings. For many, it is part of their job description to meet with and listen to constituents. That means that if you are not requesting a meeting on Tuesday at 3:30 pm, someone else is. The question is – is that person someone who is going to share your viewpoint? Your needs? Your students’ perspectives? If you want to be sure that your voice is being heard, call or show up.
- If you do show up, people will actually listen to you. I know that many people think that their voice does not make a difference, so why even show up? However, most staffers are interested in learning new information and being well-informed about the issues they are in charge of. This year I met with a number of staffers that I had met in previous years, and I could tell they knew more than the last time I spoke with them. Now, I cannot take credit for all of this increased knowledge, but I would like to think that as we all speak up more, learning cannot help but grow.
- Teaching English language learners crosses political boundaries. The recent political climate has caused many teachers and students varying degrees of stress. However, John Segota, one of TESOL’s policy experts and a Summit organizer, pointed out that English language teaching issues matter to all representatives, regardless of their political leanings. In addition to appealing to representatives’ sense of humanity and empathy, advocates can make connections between a highly educated ELL community, a productive workforce, support for local businesses, and a strong national defense system. Some of the most engaged and interesting meetings I had were in offices of representatives who are not traditional supporters of English learners.
- Preparation and professionalism matters. Being on time matters – everyone is on a schedule. Being polite helps to continue the conversation, even when you may disagree. The staffers I met with appreciated numbers and facts – I always wish that I brought more. Sending a thank you note helps develop relationships and trust, and this is true for both sides. For the record, when I sent thank you notes to staffers from MIDTESOL states, those from the offices of Senators Sasse (NE), Blunt (MO), and Ernst (IA), actually replied. I certainly gained some respect for their staffers.
- Don’t make assumptions. I met more than a few staffers who had family members in education and grew up in diverse areas, surrounded by ELLs. While there were some who were not aware of “basic” issues in education, many more clearly had the knowledge and experience needed to be qualified advisors on educational issues. What may surprise some is that the level of knowledge and interest in educational or ELL issues was not closely related to political party.
- MIDTESOL members have allies in government, but politics is, well, political. One of the staffers I met with said that her “boss” could not vocally support an issue because that Senator had to be selective regarding which issues to promote. A few others were eager to discuss education issues but passed on discussing possibly more contentious issues like immigration. Even if senators want to support a bipartisan issue, they may not if they feel they will experience a backlash from constituents. (See #1 above – what type of backlash depends on who chooses to speak up.)
- Sometimes your biggest concern is just not their biggest concern. It is hard to hear and accept, but sometimes your issue is just not a priority. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak up, but just do not get discouraged when changes are not immediate. When I visited D.C., the Senate healthcare bill was just about to be released. As I sat in offices, the phones were ringing off the hook with angry constituents. A number of people with various health concerns were waiting to speak with staffers before or after me. I actually had one staffer say that the Senator would not even look at education issues or the budget until August or September. That said, a few other staffers did mention that the information I shared would be useful when conversations on the budget began.
- Doing something is better than nothing. Complaining never changed anything, unless you are “complaining” to the right person, in the right way, at the right time.
To learn more about issues discussed at the 2017 TESOL Advocacy Summit, check out the highlights here.