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Teacher Advocacy in Tough Times

by Alaina Feliks

As every teacher does, I have had difficult and easier years in my 18 years as a teacher. One constant is that the difficult years, the ones where I started trying to figure out what else my teaching degree might be good for, were characterized by two key feelings: a sense of isolation and the feeling that the problems in education were too big, too entrenched to ever change. Participating in the Everyday Advocacy workshop with Cathy Fleischer and taking on my own advocacy project has given me tools to combat those two feelings.

My in-laws have a holiday tradition. Each fall, the whole family gets together and makes kielbasa. Starting early in the morning, we gather around a big table, sharp knives in hand, and begin the messy process of turning hundreds of pounds of meat into delicious Polish sausage. We may argue about how much pepper or garlic and tweak the recipe every year, but having a shared focus and task pulls us out of family gathering small talk and brings the family into real togetherness: all in the same room, all with our hands contributing to the same outcome.

What does advocacy have to do with kielbasa making, you might rightly ask. In the Everyday Advocacy workshop, Cathy taught us that one of the first steps in doing advocacy is gathering allies. When I started my project to create more buzz around reading in my school, I first looked to the people in my English department, people whom I already considered allies. What I did not realize is how getting my hands dirty in a project with my colleagues was an antidote to isolation and energized my connection to them. This feeling only grew when we grew our allies to include other teachers and staff in the building as well as parents and students. A shared goal builds community.

Additionally, when my colleagues added their own ideas to mine and grew the project with me, I learned how change works. We started small, with a few achievable tasks, but as the project grew, people took the concept of creating a buzz for reading and grew it with their own creative ideas. In fact, even though I no longer work at the school where I did my advocacy project, this work continues there in ways that I did not even envision, showing me how change, even starting with small changes, can have big impacts.

How does this get me through the difficult years? Well, I think we can all agree this past year was one of the most difficult. It was easy to feel isolated teaching from home, staying socially distanced from my colleagues. And the pandemic also highlighted so many of the problems and inequities in education that often feel insurmountable. But, using my advocacy tools was invaluable.

In my district, teachers were organized into learning groups based upon the classes they taught and given time to collaborate each week. With having to literally change everything about how we taught, you would think this was not the year to be advocating for anything. However, I found that the flexibility that the pandemic year required opened up some opportunities to do advocacy work. I had been doing teacher-research about my grading practices for over a year, and I was able to enlist my teacher learning group to join me in implementing a portfolio based grading approach for all of our English 9 classes that focused on student input and self-reflection. Working closely together opened the door for teachers to be supported as they tried out this alternative grading system. Working on a project together, each adding our own insights and reflections to it as the year went on, brought us closer as colleagues. We were making the sausage together, which helped us to remove focus from any pedagogical differences we might have and put the focus on how a change in grading can make a more inclusive and equitable English classroom.

And, even though the pandemic brought to light so many of the ways schools and society are inequitable, focusing on a project with my allies brought a bright spot to my year. My colleagues and I saw the changes this grading system made for students and the potential in shifting focus from points to growth. All of the teachers who tried this out committed to continuing it in the coming years, even after our work as a learning community is over. Additionally, I am starting to see that buzz growing as we talk to our colleagues and think about how to present these ideas to people in other departments.

In the end, forming allies and focusing on the ways I can make my classroom and school more joyful, inclusive, and equitable brings joy and focus to my teaching and strengthens my relationships with my colleagues. It goes beyond any individual project and instead has helped me shift my mindset in a way that keeps teaching sustainable and engaging.

Alaina Feliks teaches English at Skyline high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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