The voice of teachers and students are sought and valued

By Tiffany Jackson, AASB Board President

Public education advocates, whether you’re happy with the results of the election this month, or disappointed, I’m betting you were suffering from campaign fatigue and felt like public education was taking a beating from all sides. It felt like everyone was talking about how they were going to fix public education and address the problems faced by public education. We know until every child is graduating and prepared for life after school, there is room for improvement; but we also need to recognize the success in public education, and the strides we’ve made from years past.

I heard in a speech this month that the biggest problem we face in redefining education is the lack of inclusion of teachers and students in the discussions we have about public education. What I found ironic about this statement when it was made, was immediately following this speech was an opportunity for over 80 high school students from across the state to share with 230 school board members what they felt was going well, and what could use improvement in public education. The students were able to share what they felt from their perspective could help school board members advocate to make meaningful improvements in their districts.

Many school districts have student representatives on the school board. I’d venture to say most school boards carve out time at their meetings to hear directly from students. I know in my district, we invite teachers to be part of the committees we form to work on school district business. During Alaska’s Education Challenge, each committee intentionally had representation from teachers, students, and parents. For many of us, the voice of teachers and students are sought and valued.

Also shared earlier this month was as public education advocates we shy away from having meaningful conversations about bias and race because it makes us uncomfortable. In 2015, the Association of Alaska School Boards sat down at its strategic planning session and was presented with data that Alaska Native children were not performing as well as other children. We didn’t shy away from the conversation. We took a stand and said Alaska could do better, and we established a goal, which we’ve renewed this year, to:

Empower our boards to transform educational systems to increase academic success of Alaska Native students and increase graduation rates of Alaska Native students who are grounded in their cultural identify with the ability to successfully pursue their goals.

By and large, there was not a lot of pushback, but some did question, why single out Alaska Native children, and what about children who are not Alaska Native? Our response has been, what is good for Alaska Native children, is good for all children. A phrase our Executive Director Norm Wooten shared has become one of my favorites to explain this, “A rising tide floats all boats.” Are things perfect now? No. Are we actively working to help school boards address this issue within their districts? Yes.

Many schools in the State of Alaska participate in AASB’s climate and connectedness survey. We recognize when students are in a good climate, feel connected to their school, and see themselves in the school, they’ll see greater success. Every year school districts ask their students and teachers to take this survey in order to receive feedback on how the district is doing in regards to meeting the students and teachers needs when it comes to climate and connectedness. Every year, AASB staff help school board members dissect their data to see what it means, where improvements can be made and help districts disseminate the information to their teachers and the public in order to gain buy-in to the work we do on climate and connectedness. We don’t shy away from these discussions; we work to engage all the parties to identify how we can do better.

I also heard this month how school boards are “so worried about equality, that we are not holding up to the promise of equity.” I take a different view on this. For years school boards across the state have been working on place based education, personal learning, and working to make sure students are getting what they need to be successful. I’ve had this very conversation in my own district. Years ago I would hear from parents who were concerned the money intended for their child was being used to help fund children in schools located in other communities in our district. It took some work to educate our public that our work in public education is not in equality (making sure everyone gets the exact same thing), but in equity (making sure everyone gets what they need to succeed). However, I like to think those conversations we had were successful, and I have had very few questions regarding equality and equity in the past year.

So, as we move forward from here, know the work you are doing to advocate for public education is appreciated. Children every day go to school to receive what we’ve pledged we want for them, an excellent education, every day. Is it easy? No. Is public education perfect? No. Is it the most difficult, heartwarming, rewarding, work you’ll probably ever do? Definitely! If no one has told you how important the work you do as a public education advocate is, whether you’re a board member, teacher, parent, student, administrator, or member of the public, please know, your advocacy and work in education is everything.

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