“Why is education the way it is right now?”
“How are decisions that affect educators and students being made?”
“Why don't I see people doing things about the state of education in Louisiana?”
“Am I alone in feeling this way?”
If these questions have ever crossed your mind, you are certainly not alone. For you to have even considered these questions means there may be untapped passion hiding inside you. The students and educators of Louisiana need passionate people to advocate to improve the state of Louisiana education, and if you are open and willing, you can be a part of a group of passionate changemakers through the LEAD Fellowship, offered by Stand for Children Louisiana.
The above are questions that I was asking myself and colleagues when a friend recommended I apply to the LEAD Fellowship. When I asked her what the Fellowship was, she explained that this Fellowship introduces educators and administrators from across the state to the legislative process in Louisiana and how decisions are made. What I didn’t realize was just how valuable the information would prove to be.
And I certainly didn’t foresee making life-changing connections with other Louisiana educators and advocates.
Once a month since August 2021, LEAD Fellows have attended webinars hosted by Stand Louisiana's Kim Eckert and Karen Clark. Every webinar began with the simple request that we be present, and then they showed us profound quotes from famous advocates and asked us which one resonated with us the most in that moment and why. It was a little disconcerting to participate in a webinar on a completely foreign topic, but Kim’s infectious laugh and silly jokes quickly made us feel comfortable as we opened up to strangers via zoom. Every webinar featured a different theme: Teacher Advocacy, Teacher Voice, Laying the Foundation, Understanding Equity, and Here and Now.
We discussed basic information such as the difference between the Louisiana Department of Education, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), and local school boards. Truthfully, the Here and Now webinar provided the most useful information for me as it went through the details of how a bill is written and the many steps it takes to turn that bill into a law. If these topics sound dull to you, don’t worry. With Kim and Karen leading, each webinar was anything but dull. And after the months of webinars concluded, we reached the best part… the retreat.
On Sunday, April 10 we convened at the Stand for Children Louisiana offices in downtown Baton Rouge, where we were provided with a yummy breakfast and given a preview of what was to come. As I sat there listening, I thought “I hope the fact that I am a school librarian and not a classroom teacher or administrator will not make me the odd one out.” But that thought could not have been further from reality. As we participated in a quick “speed networking” icebreaker to get to know each other, the ice quickly shattered and I shared my personal reasons for being at this retreat. I was expecting an “oh,” or dead silence, or some questions about what librarians can even advocate for. But instead, I was met with excitement and smiles as Fellows raved about my career and what I brings to the table. The love and acceptance of each person I spoke to was palpable. The passion each person had for their career, their students, and education was moving. Within minutes, it felt like we had known each other for lifetimes. I never would have suspected that simply wanting more from our careers and wanting positive change could so easily bond me to other people.
Truly, this was really all we have in common: we are educators who want more and want the best for our students. We are educators who understand our worth and have something to say.
We spent the day sharing and discussing issues that fired up our passions. We went out for dinner and met Stand Louisiana’s Executive Director Carrie Griffin Monica and Government Affairs Director Brigette Nieland.
Carrie and Brigette’s presence was powerful and informative. They were able to explain details about bills that were currently being considered in the legislature and had amazing, unbiased explanations for why Stand Louisiana supported, opposed, or took a neutral stance on each one. The way they were able to explain both sides of the situations was so illuminating. They clearly demonstrated their expertise about these bills, education, and the entire legislative process. Their insights were so enlightening and knowing that they were there to teach us was comforting and empowering.
The next day we journeyed to the state Capitol building to dive deeper into the state's lawmaking processes.
Did it feel like we were spending the day at the state Capitol learning about the House of Representatives and the Senate with people we’d only met the day before? Surprisingly, no. It felt like we were on a field trip to Disney World with lifelong best friends.
Best of all, we learned so much while having fun. We started by filling an empty committee room where we learned the roles of committee members, chairperson, witnesses, and bill author. The green, red, and white comment cards were explained to us: filling out a green card indicates support of the bill, red indicates opposition, and white is for those wanting to provide information only. Then, the Stand Louisiana team put us to work. We “played pretend committee” for two separate bill proposals: one about teacher pay raises and one about standardized SLTs (student learning targets). Both issues are being considered in this year’s legislative session. This experience helped us to understand what was taking place when we later visited actual meetings throughout the Capitol. It was pretty fun pretending to Chair a committee, too (pictured below).
After a tour of the Capitol building itself including a photo opportunity from the top of the tower, we sat in on committee meetings that discussed education savings accounts and teacher retirement. The discussions of these legislators left a resounding impression on each of us as we came to one solitary conclusion: Educators are the experts on education. Those making decisions about our jobs and students deserve to hear from us, the experts.
That evening, we had dinner with members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and staff from the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), including the State Superintendent of Education Dr. Cade Brumley. Interacting with the people making decisions on our behalf at the state level was such a valuable opportunity for us. We introduced ourselves to BESE members and discussed our districts and jobs. It was such a cool experience to see politicians sitting down to dinner with educators, everyone setting political agendas aside. The networking opportunities the LEAD Fellowship provided was priceless, and the meals were delectable.
On Tuesday, we once again met at the Stand Louisiana office, where we really marinated in the comradery we all felt for each other. This time we headed for the Claiborne building where we got to speak to an LDOE employee and sit in on BESE meetings. We were recognized by the State Superintendent of Education, as he introduced us to the room and shared our story. It felt very rewarding to be a part of this group that was being recognized as passionate education advocates from across our state.
Even more interesting was the night and day differences between the meetings of the full House of Representatives versus the BESE committee meetings. The House of Representatives was pure chaos, with loud discussions taking place on the floor in front of an audience. The Speaker of the House stood as Representatives debated bills for all to hear. One bill was discussed for over an hour. The BESE meetings were quick and efficient. It was clear every BESE committee member knew what was going on and were prepared for the content they covered. Discussions were few, and very few questions were asked. Items were voted on, and they moved on. It resembled a factory assembly line, where each member seemed to know their job, and performed it accordingly.
After the BESE meetings, it was time to depart, but not before we could each express our gratitude to everyone with Stand Louisiana who had made the Fellowship, retreat, and incredible networking opportunities possible, and not until every single one of us said we’d apply to the Fellowship again next year.
I don’t think I ever saw myself as someone who could ever be interested in politics or the legislative process. However, after years of being affected by the decisions others are making on behalf of myself and my students, I can say I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience with the Fellowship.
In fact, I can’t wait to connect with even more passionate educators and work together to fight decisions that will negatively impact Louisiana education and support those decisions that will make things better for us all. My fellow LEAD educators are the most amazing people I have had the pleasure of knowing. We spent the entire retreat throwing around the term “like-minded educators,” and truly there is no better description.
Knowing that there are other educators in my state who see things the way I see them, who care so deeply for their students and their careers, who want things to be better and are willing to do the work necessary to make it better, and knowing LEAD Fellows are in Louisiana schools gives me hope for the future of Louisiana education. The LEAD Fellows and all of the amazing people at Stand Louisiana are going to be the ones that you will be hearing from, because they are the educators who will be finding a way to provide a quality education for Louisiana students. They will be the ones who bring “Equity in Action” to Louisiana students.
These educators and advocates will be the ones making a difference, because we are better together.
I implore you, if you are asking yourself questions about why things are the way they are, if you are feeling hopeless or tired, if you are seeing injustices take place with students or educators, if you are tired of doing nothing or are tired of the things you are doing not having the impact you expect, consider joining the LEAD Fellowship next year (share your name and email here to receive the application when it opens in the Fall). I promise, it will change your career and life. It will provide real insight to your questions, give you amazing networking opportunities, and best of all you will make lifelong connections with other like-minded educators. These mutually beneficial relationships will validate your experiences and provide you with new perspectives. It’s been less than a month since I returned from the retreat and I have already found multiple ways to advocate and make positive change for my students thanks to this experience. It will reveal your untapped passion. Just apply - you won’t be sorry!