by Colleen Flaherty
While Clay Aiken may be better known for his career as a singer, he’s been advocating for students for well over a decade.
“I recognize that when you get into the public eye, you can either use the microphone to do better for yourself, or you can use it to do better for more people,” said Aiken in an interview with Education Votes.
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Before his rise to stardom on American Idol, Clay Aiken was running a YMCA after school program when he was first given the chance to work in a classroom.
“The principal at the school knew I wanted to work with kids with special needs, so when she had a teacher in one of her special ed classrooms who was going on maternity leave, she wanted to know if I’d be willing to fill in for her, and I said yes.”
He ended up staying at the elementary school for the next two years. He eventually went on to become a qualified special education teacher, for much the same reason he is now running for Congress in North Carolina’s 2nd District.
“The reason I did it is because I fell in love with these kids, and I recognized that they needed someone, an advocate for them. I thought it was an opportunity to work with some kids who needed help. So I guess to tie it into Congress, this was an opportunity for me to do the same thing. To be an advocate for not just students, but teachers, workers and the entire population of this state who are not effectively being advocated for.”
Two months after his time on American Idol in 2003, Aiken founded and continues to run the National Inclusion Project, formerly the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, which focuses on promoting the inclusion of children with disabilities with their nondisabled peers. The foundation is still going strong in 35 states across the country. He has been an ambassadorship for education programs for UNICEF since 2004, and in 2006, President George W. Bush appointed Aiken to the Presidential Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.
While the foundation is still going strong in 35 states across the country, Aiken hopes that, if elected, his time in Congress will give him a chance to fight for more services for special needs students, including those covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
“As a teacher, a former educator myself, I think I have a loud enough mouth to make sure that people are listening. Education is, I say a political football because it’s an issue that everyone supports. Everyone wants better educational opportunities. Folks recognize how important educators are, but folks don’t quite recognize how much they’re being abused.”
Aiken points to the overuse of testing in the classroom as one product of poor education policy, creating a model of “teaching to the test.”
“That type of high stakes testing is deleterious to the educational environment for students, and it’s deleterious to the work environment for teachers. They can’t be creative. They can’t do what they came to work to do. Teachers did not sign up to be teachers because they wanted to get rich. They signed up to do it because they wanted to help kids and better their opportunities in life and teach ‘em. When they teach to the test, they can’t do what they signed up to do.”
As for many educators who may feel the effects of being a “political football,” Aiken just has one message for them.
“Continue to be loud. Teachers spend so much time advocating for their kids, but they could spend a lot more time advocating for themselves. Teachers are on the ground more than any other group, and they need to speak up.”