What Every Elected Official Should Know
What should newly elected representatives know about their schools, their students, and their teachers? We asked teachers themselves for a few ideas.
February 27, 2019
More than 230 Teach For America alumni ran for elected office over the past year, and more than 135 won. As newly elected officials took office, we reached out to teachers among us—corps members and alumni—to ask a simple question: What do they want their new elected representatives to know about them, and especially about their students?
As we made calls, many of these conversations got pretty raw, pretty quickly. Some turned tearful. Teachers spoke from their hearts. In a country where 1.3 million students are homeless according to the last federal count, and where 12 million kids struggle with being hungry, teachers asked their elected leaders to first meet families’ basic human needs. They asked them to hear and respect teachers. And then they had more to say.
Rachel Kohan-Garvey (Greater Philadelphia ’07)
Garvey teaches high school African American studies and social studies at Academy at Palumbo in Philadelphia.
Kohan-Garvey has been teaching social studies in and around her hometown of Philadelphia for 11 years. She wants elected officials to know that “our students are more socially aware than past generations because they feel more connected to each other…I think a lot of times we don’t recognize how curious kids are about the world and how much thinking they do about how to make their lives and others’ lives better.” Garvey says, “They have access to information, they see injustice and they try to make sense of it, and when they can’t make sense of it, they want to fix it.”
She says teachers can help by exposing students to different perspectives. To enable that to happen, Garvey believes elected leaders should take action to integrate schools and fairly distribute access to resources and opportunities. “The disparity of funding between the suburbs and Philadelphia is just unnerving,” she says. “I would LOVE to talk to the state about how we fund public schools in Pennsylvania.”
Jonathan Doram (Greater Delta ‘17)
Doram is a second-year corps member who teaches choir at Forest Heights STEM Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. In his first year, he organized his school’s first benefit concert, which raised about $2,500. His students have partnered with organizatons including Women and Children First to perform benefit shows for domestic violence shelters and hurricane relief.
Doram would tell elected officials that it’s time to make school integration a priority. “We need to change zoning laws and how zoning works to ensure that there’s true integration throughout schools along the lines of race and class,” he says.
He also called for political leaders to drop the rhetoric that says immigrants are a detriment to society. He tells his students their identities are a strength. He sees choir as essential to helping them stay positive. Doram says, “I use music as a medicine of the mind.”
Kaitlin Lewallen (Las Vegas ‘12)
Lewallen teaches pre-K at Red Rock Elementary School in Las Vegas.
Lewallen says she would tell elected leaders that the best way to improve the lives of the next generation of Americans—and even to improve our political discourse—is to commit to providing universal pre-K and kindergarten education now. “This is where they’re learning how to be citizens: how to take turns, how to negotiate, how to respond when someone gets upset,” she says. “The actions you see in adults can be traced back to when they’re 4 years old and they learn these social emiotional skills.”
DeShunta Ross (Metro Atlanta ’16)
Ross teaches kindergarten at College Park Elementary School in College Park, Georgia. She was her school’s teacher of the year. She herself grew up with severe hardships and had her first child while in her teens. She is now a mother of five.
Ross would tell elected official that she feels unseen. Why, she says, don’t they come visit her Title I school? “I hope our officials know that if they don’t start to be present and vigilant about what students really need, they’re going to lose good people in education,” Ross says.
“I teach students who are homeless and don’t have enough food to eat. Even though I’m still taking care of my five children on a teacher’s salary, I find a way to feed them as well. No matter how hard it is out there, in here you will never go hungry.”
“I’m on these committees that teach me about the school budget, but why is it in my classroom, I don’t have books for my children to read? Why are some of my children still using the first-generation iPad that can’t run the apps they need? The administration is working to get us the resources we need but the focus is on the testing grades…We have a library in our school, but children are not allowed to check out books.
“I have one student in mind who’s been shuffled back and forth. After his home burned down, he lived in a shelter with his grandmother, then with his mom, then not. But when he comes to school, he loves to learn. I tell him, ‘It doesn’t matter what’s happening at home. What you learn in here, no one can ever take away from you.’
“I don’t have the books I need to keep up with his learning. I have students reading the same books over and over again.
“I tell him he’s just like LeBron James. LeBron practices the same shots over and over, even when he’s already made the shot once, because he knows he gets better every time he practices. And just like LeBron, I tell him he gets better every time he reads a book, even if he’s already read it.”
“I just wish I could give them more. I really do.”
“I’d want them to know that our students are brilliant, they’re amazing, they engage with you in so many ways. And we don’t have the resources to meet their needs.”
Michelle Martin-Sullivan (Appalachia ’15)
Martin-Sullivan teaches Spanish at Floyd Central High School in Eastern Kentucky and has been honored by the Kentucky World Language Association.
Martin-Sullivan says, “I’m worried there is a single narrative that families in rural Eastern Kentucky are closed-minded, extremely conservative, and racist...The first thing I’d want people to know is that my students are SO curious about the world, and about what goes on outside of their community. And while some haven’t had the chance to travel outside of our region, they’re very curious about what goes on in Washington and the state capital.”
“My students are very, very invested in their own education. They are aware of the gap between our schools in Eastern Kentucky and the schools in Louisville and Lexington, and because of that, they take every opportunity they can to participate in statewide competitions and the state World Language summit.
“My students advocate for themselves on a daily basis. They work really hard in my classes. They want to get fluent in Spanish because they see the benefits of being bilingual in a global society.” Students in Martin-Sullivan’s Spanish 2 class petitioned their school to add Spanish 3. While Martin-Sullivan individually tutored students to take the Spanish AP exam, they successfully advocated for AP Spanish to be added to their high school’s curriculum.
Martin-Sullivan sent us a piece of writing that one of her students, junior Lauren Hamby, used to explain why she was advocating for more foreign language instruction. She wrote, “I think everybody has a little bit of ‘change-the-world’ in them. For me, that’s being able to learn another language so that no matter how many walls they build, I can talk through that wall and somebody will be able to hear me on the other side.”
Samantha Showers (Idaho ’17)
Showers is a second year corps member teaching 10th grade English at Nampa High School in Nampa, Idaho.
Showers is committed to teaching in a rural school district and is participating this year in Teach For America’s Rural School Leadership Academy. She has a disease that causes progressive hearing loss, and she signs fluently. One of her students is starting a sign language club.
Showers urges elected leaders to consider the needs of students with hearing loss. “The average deaf high school student is reading at a fourth grade level,” she says, and young children with hearing impairments “often go without any language input for years” until their needs are identified. From hearing aids not being covered by insurance to a lack of certified interpreters, particularly in rural areas, students suffer throughout school and into adulthood. “Don’t ignore the deaf community and its needs,” Showers says.
Hannah Wysong (Phoenix ’12)
Wysong is in her seventh year teaching science at her placement school, William T. Machan Elementary School in Phoenix. She is a mentor teacher, a National Board Certified teacher in Early Adolescence/Science, and writes curriculum for her district. She participated in last year’s Arizona teacher demonstrations for sustainable education funding and teacher-salary increases.
“First and foremost, I’d invite every elected official to visit a classroom, talk to teachers. It’s easy to get removed and not have a sense of what the reality is. I’d want them to know that our students are brilliant, they’re amazing, they engage with you in so many incredible ways. And we don’t have the resources to meet their needs.” Wysong suggests that increasing teacher pay and adequately staffing schools with counselors and paraprofessionals continue to be the kinds of needs that are hard to communicate to people who aren’t living the school life day-to-day. “Listen to teachers. Listen to teachers,” she says. “Trust them.”
Nicholas Schifano (N.Y. ’17)
Schifano is a second-year corps member, math teacher, and basketball coach at University Prep High School in New York City. He was recently elected to the school board in his hometown of Ramsey, New Jersey.
“Think of education as a priority as much as you would foreign policy, economic policy, or health care,” Schifano says. “We’re not just an issue you can use to win an election. We’re in need,” he says, especially in trying to find funding to support the multitude of extracurricular opportunities he enjoyed as a suburban kid—band, student government, newspaper. “I had a ton of those opportunities when I was a student. I don’t know if I deserved them, but I had them,” he says. “My students deserve these opportunities as much as they deserve to learn the Pythagorean theorem.”
“This is where they’re learning how to be citizens: how to take turns, how to negotiate, how to respond when someone gets upset.”
Casey Stockton (Detroit ’16)
Stockton teaches U.S. History at Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit.
This past fall, Stockton ran a 10-week after-school program to invest students in the November elections, excite them about following the news, and help them understand their power to influence outcomes. About 30 students at his school, ages 14 to 18, knocked on doors to register voters in their Detroit neighborhoods. Back at school, they took a survey to identify with which political party they might align. “I’ve developed my curriculum to give students the skills and power to disrupt society,” he says.
His message to elected leaders is simple: His students’ families need enough income to live and meet their most basic needs. His students need, but don’t always get, three meals a day. Many live far from their school of choice. When the family car broke down, he says, one of his students missed two weeks of school. His position is that families need a guaranteed income, health care, adequate public transportation and—for their kids—free enrichment opportunities. “Only then can we consider ourselves a democracy,” he says.
Ale Cantu (R.G.V. ’10)
Cantu teaches chemistry at KIPP University Prep high school in San Antonio, using a discussion-based classroom approach through which students do labs, collect data, and make meaning of their work as a group.
Cantu would tell elected officials to find the money to pay for her students to take prep classes for the ACT and SAT so they’d have a chance to be on a more equal footing with families who pay for prep courses. “These tests determine if they get into college or how much they earn in scholarships,” says Cantu, who has some students who are homeless or living in shelters. Teachers at her school have taken it upon themselves to try to close those gaps to prepare their students to take college entrance exams.
She also wants to hear a change in the political conversation about her students who are undocumented. “Some people think that undocumented students just want everything handed to them. The reality is that they are hardworking, they’re willing to work for it, and they want to give back to this country.”
Brandon Hersey (Washington ’16)
Hersey teaches second grade at Rainier View Elementary School in Seattle. He also produces his own YouTube series, Woke Black Teacher, where he shares teaching tips through a social justice lens.
Hersey would tell elected officials schools need to recruit more educators of color, and educators who know their communities. He comes from a long line of educators. His mother and grandmother were both teachers, and he’s found a sense of purpose in teaching as well. “For my first two years, I was the only African American teacher in my building. We were educating about 540 students, 40 percent of whom were African American or Latino and who had never had a black teacher before,” he says. (Nationally, fewer than half of all public school students are white, but around 80 percent of teachers are white.)
Hersey wants elected officials to help break down the barriers to becoming a teacher, noting that people of color are affected disproportionately by high transition costs. “For me personally, if it wasn’t for Teach For America’s transitional funding, I wouldn’t have been able to accept this position.” Before he started teaching, Hersey was a Truman-Albright Fellow for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. He moved across the country to teach in Seattle.
Mathieu Williams (Hawai‘i ’12)
Williams is a digital media and technology teacher at Kealakehe Intermediate School in Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i. In the classroom, Williams’ middle school students learn website design and photography. They also produce a school broadcast program. He was recently named the 2019 Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year.
Williams has been teaching in his home state for almost seven years. He wants elected officials to focus on connecting students with successful members of the business community. “My students need access, and it’s not just access to funding but access to people, access to mentors, to change-makers like themselves.”
Williams’ students know how to write professional emails, manage projects, script stories, and edit video. He’d like there to be a platform where his students’ skills could become known. Williams wants elected officials to get behind the creation of an online resource bank where people could tap into services available to them from skilled students in their own communities.
“If a small business needs a promo done on a new product, they could reach out to my students,” he says. Middle school students may not be able to meet the professional demands for every project, but they could produce media pieces that might benefit community members, Williams suggests. “These kids have skill sets. How can we make it a win-win?”