“Why did you choose to be a teacher?”
I recently asked my mom, who just retired after 37 years working as a schoolteacher in Wyoming, this question. A son and grandson of educators, I grew up witnessing my mom’s joys and challenges as a teacher: the foot-high piles of student work to grade, the exasperated dinner-table conversations about distressing new state legislation, the weekend trips to her classroom to keep up with the demands of the job.
Why did she, a fresh-from-college Illinoisan, move to a tiny Wyoming town to do this difficult work?
“I thought it was my way of making a difference in the world,” she told me.
Instilled with my mother’s ideals, I reversed her Midwest-to-mountains sojourn: a fresh-from-college Wyomingite moving to Minneapolis to teach ESL at a low-income elementary school.
I now know firsthand how uplifting and difficult being a teacher can be, and how myriad policy decisions affect the work I do every day: implementing the rigorous standards known as the Common Core; modifying No Child Left Behind/ESEA to address its shortcomings, such as simplified curricula due to testing; establishing new evaluation systems that rate teacher effectiveness and, I hope, provide us with support and feedback to get even better.
I have also seen firsthand how difficult being a child in America can be, and how abstract policies affect my kids in very real, sometimes painful, ways: how food insecurity can drive families to our school’s monthly food shelf, how incarceration inequity has many of my students writing personal narratives about visiting fathers and uncles in prison, how immigration laws left one of my students trying to hide his tears over his mother’s possible deportation.
With this dual focus on my professional requirements and my students’ needs, I sat down just more than a year ago with four Twin Cities teachers — elementary and secondary, traditional public and charter — to discuss our shared frustration at how little voice we had over these policies. We decided to change that.
Together, we formed Empowering Educators for Equity (E3MN). We researched policies that mattered to our kids and to us. We testified at the Minnesota Legislature, wrote editorials, and campaigned after school, on weekends, and during breaks from grading papers. We found other teachers like us — from all backgrounds, levels of experience, and teaching environments — who wanted to make a difference in their profession.
Now with more than 300 members, E3MN is launching as a full chapter of Educators 4 Excellence (E4E), a national organization of teachers who advocate for sensible policies in several other cities. Through E4E, we can organize even more teachers in Minnesota who share our values and hopes for our profession. We will identify issues that matter and share policy recommendations with decision makers at all levels. We will publicly advocate for the changes we want to see, convening policymakers and meeting with those in charge.
Together, we can work on national issues, as E4E members across the country have done, while continuing to focus on local issues that affect our students and us, including our recent efforts on contract negotiations, early-childhood education, and the passage of a state Dream Act.
An asset to unions
As our organization develops, we look forward to working with Minnesota’s teachers’ unions. I’m a proud member and building rep within my union, because my union encompasses teachers with perspectives as diverse as those of the families and students we serve. I believe E4E will be an asset to state teachers’ unions, assisting leadership in understanding members’ differing outlooks and ensuring they also have a voice at the table.
Additionally, we have helped union leaders inform members about opportunities within their unions. We have allowed teachers to network with educators outside their own unions, such as those in other districts or at non-union charter schools, in the pursuit of policies that work for kids. We aim to extend this model of teacher cooperation and collaboration across Minnesota during the coming school year.
As part of E4E, we will continue to empower fellow teachers to fight for policies that give us the support and autonomy we need to deliver great teaching. Across Minnesota and nationwide, E4E teachers will continue the drive to increase outcomes for students.
‘I enjoyed every day’
I asked my mom, looking back at her 37 years in teaching, would she make the same career choice again? I believe E4E will help enable my colleagues and me to answer the question like she did:
“Oh, yeah. I enjoyed every day,” she said. “I had the autonomy to determine how I wanted to teach, so my teaching became more meaningful to my students personally. I made a difference in their lives.”
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