5 Things I Learned from My Fellowship in D.C.

A look back at my year as an Einstein Fellow on Capitol Hill.

ADVOCACY LEADERSHIP

Shawn Sheehan

8/20/2019 7 min read

1. Passing and changing laws in this country is harder than the public knows. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that my 7th grade civics class served as the primer for my foray into politics in 2019. That and the classic Schoolhouse Rock! cartoon about a bill becoming a law. Passing a bill is extremely complex and even if one chamber is successful in moving a bill forward, it oftentimes gets lost or left intentionally unaddressed in the other chamber.

The frustration level hits hard when something newsworthy happens (say, another mass shooting) and the public demands change. At the time of this blog post, the House has passed a handful of notable bills related to gun violence, but the Senate hasn’t taken them up yet. Gun violence was among my many legislative issue areas in my role and this was an area I experienced a great deal of emotion. My wife and I are classroom teachers in the 21st century which means we not only worry about gun violence affecting us at work and in the community, we train on it. A staple among back-to-school professional developments now includes active shooter training for educators and speaking frankly, it’s simultaneously terrifying and necessary.

When it comes to advocating for change, endurance and tenacity are key. You’ve got to maintain both to see the change happen. Of course, those two character traits take a backseat to actively voting and ensuring your family and community members are just as involved in casting their votes at all levels of government. If your elected officials aren’t making the change you seek, change your elected officials by voting.

2. Education equity is taking center stage in policy conversations. Educators are increasingly stepping out of their classrooms to advocate for better funding for themselves and their students. I count myself among them having ran for office on a platform of improving public education funding and better teacher pay. This level of advocacy isn’t new, however, the lengths educators are willing to go through (i.e. strikes and walkouts) are forcing legislators to make good on campaign promises of improving these key issues. In the process, teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and California have improved working conditions and pay with mixed results while still largely enjoying support from the public. The trickle-down effect is that neighboring states have taken notice and are making moves to ensure their educational systems remain competitive.

As a former Okie educator who made the move south to Texas, I now live in a state whose legislature just passed HB3 which provides $11.6 billion for improving per-pupil funds, increasing teacher compensation, reducing recapture, and reducing property taxes. Texas educators and legislators were closely following the ongoings north of the Red River and were quick to take action last session.

Fewer people are denying that significant inequities exist in school funding. The dividing line has now shifted to exactly how we improve outcomes for all students. Some will tout school choice (including various forms of Education Savings Accounts (ESA) and vouchers) as the best option for student success. Others insist that vouchers like these only harm public school systems as they siphon off already limited funds. There’s an abundance of data that clearly shows students of color are being left behind but there are disagreements about how much of a role the federal government has in leveling the playing field. And the hardest truth that’s buried in these education equity conversations is that racism is still masked in policies that claim to help all students. This continues to be a battle between the haves and have-nots. During my time on the Hill, it felt like we would make one step forward, but two steps back and slightly off-center in regards to education equity.

3. STEM is also in the spotlight. There’s an increasing focus on Career and Technical Education. And by focus, I mean funding. The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (AKA Perkins V) pumps $1.2 billion in federal funds for CTE each year and just went into effect last month. The U.S. Department of Education will be working with states to identify and implement CTE programs in schools and STEM will be an important function of these programs. Numerous STEM-related bills have also made their way through Congress. The challenge, as it often has been, will be properly defining STEM/CTE and ensuring the applicants actually meet the criteria required to receive funding.

Private industry is getting more involved in these efforts and there’s currently a push to increase the number of paid internships for students in high needs fields. Organizations have taken notice that diversifying the STEM workforce is critical to success. Different perspectives are prized in the STEM world but are sorely lacking. As funds increase to realize the diversity goal, educators may have a tough time keeping up with all the opportunities available to students. Educators of underrepresented students should be intentional about identifying one or two resources (ex: paid internships, summer camps, programs) to offer their students.

Now, I know that’s easier said than done. I teach ESL Algebra I to newcomers to the U.S. and I can tell you, my plate is full. But following my year of fellowship, I know there are literally dozens of well-funded unique STEM opportunities for minority students. Carving out 15 minutes to Google a few opportunities will be time well spent. In an effort to save my fellow STEM educators that 15 minutes, some noteworthy ones I’ve interacted with include Facebook’s Tech Prep and Code FWD, the TGR Foundation, Code with Google, and last but certainly not least, NASA’s STEM engagement for educators.

4. Transitioning from the classroom is difficult. When you’re used to a heavily regimented day that consists of taking attendance, grading papers, providing feedback to students, responding to e-mails from parents and administrators, devouring lunch in 10 minutes, supporting children with their daily life challenges, and teaching, you’d think switching to a conventional 9-to-5 would be easy. It’s not, though. Not by a long shot. It’s almost too much freedom when you switch to working exclusively with adults. Most notable for me was that I could eat a proper lunch in a reasonable amount of time that doesn’t result in indigestion. It. Was. Wild!

One of my favorite parts of the fellowship was that I got to have very deep, political, and intellectual conversations with other adults. And not just random adults on the street. I mean very intelligent, well-read, motivated adults who have dedicated their lives to politics. Often, I’d take a backseat and just listen and in doing so, I learned the most. I was used to being the leader of discussion in the room. But now, I had an opportunity to step off the stage and spend a year in the audience of daily political discourse. I will say it’s enlightening, inspiring, and even enraging from time to time.

Working on the Hill was like being thrown into a deputy superintendent position for a very large school district. There were times when I felt assured of myself such as when I supported my Congressman with his work on the House Education and Labor Committee. I would review bills that were going to be discussed at markup or summarize witness testimony for upcoming hearings on education issues. My experience in education gave me a lens through which to operate and dive deeper. But education was not my only legislative issue area. I also covered gun violence, pensions, financial services, housing, telecommunications, and the arts. These were the areas I had to spend more time researching and attending related briefings. It also meant taking meetings with constituents and organizations with vested interests in those areas. Talk about imposter syndrome. And yet I found my groove in being able to have one or two general ideas about an issue a constituent wished to discuss, then being open and receptive to new information provided.

We discuss this mindset at length in teacher professional development. Teachers are encouraged to embrace a growth mindset and to be active listeners with open minds. We ask educators to be culturally proficient and responsive so that we can empathize and better understand others with different cultures than our own. And we ask educators to be flexible so that when things change, they can adjust course on the fly. We also ask the same of our students as this skill set is a requisite for 21st Century Learner Skills.

5. Transition back to the classroom is also difficult, but significantly easier. For me, it was like going to a family reunion. Some things had changed, but it was a joy to be back with my teacher family. I joked, “I’ve only been gone a year. How much could’ve changed?” Well, the district had implemented a new learning management system (LMS) while I was away, so I had to learn a new system to input my coursework and grades. A few policies on technology had changed and on-site, I would no longer have my own classroom; instead, I’d have a cart that I would use to travel to other classrooms to teach. Now, that sounds like a harsh welcome, but a) the two classrooms I use are side by side; b) I’m only teaching in the mornings because I have taken on a new hybrid teacher leader role; and c) I now have a nice office in the district administration office a few doors down from the Superintendent.

Three-fourths of the way into my fellowship, I reached out to my Superintendent to pitch a new job. I told him that I definitely wanted to teach students. Living a life without teaching kids for a few months affirmed that I belong in a math classroom. But my experience on the Hill helped me acquire a new skill set - one that I simply could not table. I asked to teach ESL (English as a Second Language) Algebra I in the mornings, then serve as the district’s Community and Government Liaison in the afternoons. The goal is to utilize my legislative and policy knowledge to the district’s benefit while still speaking from the current educator perspective. I’m also hoping to work closely with district leadership to tackle new initiatives that require more community, educator, and parental involvement.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say what the new position means, but I’m honored to be in a place that values trying something new and allows educators to take on new roles of leadership while still keeping one foot in the classroom! It’s a model I’m hoping can be replicated for other educators with similar aspirations, so I’ll be sure to keep good notes as we move forward.

*6. Educators need to be involved in politics. So, I didn’t learn this over the last year, I’m just re-stating it. It’s our duty as educators to exercise our civic duty outside the classroom ( and not using school resources, of course). The nature of our work calls us to be involved in issues beyond education. The issues that affect our students also include housing, healthcare, gun violence, labor, and so many more. Any teacher who has taught more than one month knows that our students and their families are directly impacted by the resources that are or are not available to them. Our students’ learning is dependent upon how well their basic needs for food, shelter, and care are being met. I encourage my colleagues to take on the role we ask of our students each day when it comes to advocacy. Dive in, learn as much as you can, then apply what you learn to the world around you.