Now that the battleground has been staked out (see “The Beatings Will Cease When Your Morale Improves“), many of my colleagues and friends are preparing to engage our adversaries.
In this article, I’ll offer some advice to those, especially public educators, who plan to talk with their legislators, whether with letters, email, phone calls, or committee testimony.
First and most important: Confine yourself to our issues. Of course you have opinions about other issues; we all do. But if you speak as an education advocate, talk about education and leave your other causes at home. As an educator, you know something about schools and students, and many people will value your observations on them. But you’re probably not an expert on life and choice, gun control, the death penalty, or health care, and people generally don’t value your opinions on those topics in the same way.
(A corollary to this principle: just because it’s provided by a government agency, don’t confuse public education with the government services enshrined in the liberal pantheon. Public schools aren’t some New Deal or Great Society program dreamed up by a liberal Democratic President; they were enshrined in the laws of the early colonies over 350 years ago and incorporated in the Articles of Confederation. The Ohio Constitution language calling for a “thorough and efficient system of common schools” is over 150 years old. When you incorporate public education into liberalism, you don’t gain any more support from liberals, and you lose the support of conservatives.)
Second: Stay within your experience. Chances are that you haven’t memorized every fact about the topic. Generalizations tend to sound like conjecture after a while. Talk about how the issue under discussion affects your work, especially your students and their families. You know those best, and if you’re honest you can’t make a mistake. Tell your stories.
Some fifteen years ago, I testified on tenure before the Ohio Senate. I chose to emphasize the impact that I thought a proposed weakening of contract protections would have on the discussions I had with my principal about my annual evaluations and on the academic climate within my school. Because I was talking about something I knew well from my own experience, I was on pretty solid ground through the encounter. And that proved to be a good thing: following my three-minute statement (which of course I had been able to craft carefully), the Senators grilled me for eighteen more minutes (which of course I couldn’t have prepared for). Staying within my own experience helped me to negotiate the traps some of them tried to set.
Third: Don’t overreact. You and I probably agree that whatever bill you’re opposing is clearly aimed at destroying our profession; but even the legislator who submitted it may not know that. Remember Hanlon’s Law: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” He or she probably didn’t actually write it and almost certainly doesn’t know all its implications.
For all our sophistication, we have never devised a foolproof system for looking into a person’s soul. The person you’re dealing with believes in his or her position, even if it’s hard to believe that any right-minded person could do so. Even the best people are sometimes wrong. Their being wrong doesn’t make them less good, unless through pride, malice, or self-interest they cling to their error. But their being good doesn’t make them less wrong either, and if their facts or reasoning are faulty, you have every right to correct them, perhaps vehemently. As you do so, remember that intemperate language only gives our adversaries an excuse to discount what you have to say.
Without exaggeration, I will say that we are embarking on the legislative battle of a lifetime. We didn’t ask for it, but we can’t shrink from it. If you’re going to be a soldier in this battle, fight honorably, fight hard, and fight smart.