Today is the First Day of School in my district. In honor of this annual milestone and the people who make it happen, I offer the following: a memory from a local elementary school and the teachers who work their magic within the walls.
A long time ago, in a graduate class that was part of my Masters Degree program, we had a discussion of politics and teaching. One colleague said, “I just want to close the classroom door and teach.” She was serious; she didn’t like the distraction of political issues and conflicts.
Like it or not, distraction or otherwise, teaching is political. Education is a political field. But even so, we teachers have to be cautious. We can’t appear to be partisan in class. We are discouraged from using any print matter from campaigns, even if we cover both major parties in the election.
Beyond that, new policies came out in 2011 and 2012. Educators and other public workers became vocal and active when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his Republican buddies proposed the infamous Act 10, which stripped most public employees of bargaining rights.
Meanwhile, we taught. And we talked – quietly among ourselves. We had to be careful because of the strict policies about political involvement. We could park a car with a political bumper sticker in the school lots. We were allowed to wear a campaign button on our jackets on the way in and out of school. We could volunteer on our own time or donate money to a candidate of our choice, but we couldn’t discuss it during school hours or use school equipment (copiers or computers) for political purposes. That meant no emails, no printing or copying of news articles, and no reading of blogs on company computers, even after hours.
We managed, though. We collaborated and shared news during our lunches and our prep periods. We walked out the door together and talked them. We updated each other before the bell rang in the morning and after the kids left in the afternoon. We teachers, we who had dedicated our lives to making a difference, turned political: we stood up for ourselves and said that we mattered.
My colleague who had wanted to “close the classroom door and teach” became active in her own way. She couldn’t discuss issues, but she made sure her students had a front row seat on election day by acting as welcome crews, opening and holding doors as voters came into the poll located in their school building. She didn’t talk about specific candidates, but she made sure her students knew that voting was important. By having her students interact with voters, if only in a small way, she sent a clear message: This is what democracy looks like.
And as the presidential election of 2016 looms, I’m quietly installing a sticker in my minivan’s window announcing my support for Emily’s List. If anyone wonders what Emily’s List might be, and that person looks it up, I’ve accomplished a little quiet political action of my own.