by Félix Pérez
With only three weeks before the end of this school year, Des Moines, Iowa, middle school teacher librarian Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley, like educators across America, was trying to catch her breath and stay organized as she sought to meet all the demands, requirements and added stress that accompany this time of year.
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Nevertheless, Delagardelle Shelley found herself in a hotel 700 miles away immersed in a weekend training with two dozen educators from throughout the country motivated — compelled even — by a common goal: prepare for their first run for local elected office.
Every educator who was in Dallas last month for the first-ever “See Educators Run” training, held by the National Education Association and designed specifically for educators, had her or his own reason for being there. For Delagardelle Shelley, it began with the presidential election and came to a head this February, when the Iowa governor and state legislature stripped 184,000 educators, nurses, firefighters and other public service workers of their right to negotiate work conditions collectively.
But regardless of what drove them to run, they share the belief that it’s high time educators be among the elected officials who make policies and pass laws if educator and student concerns are to be heard.
“There are politics involved in every aspect of my students’ lives,” said Memphis, TN, education support professional Loranzo Andrews. The NEA training “positions us so we are not just window shopping, looking at the conversation going on and wishing we were there.”
Denise Gray wants to put an end to unaccountable charter schools shuttering in the middle of the school year, “dumping” students in neighborhood public schools and walking away with taxpayer funding, no questions asked. The special education paraeducator in Lexington, KY, said, “Our students of color need to see people like them in leadership roles.” A former lawyer interested in running for her county commission and ultimately the state legislature, Gray said, “My students inspired me to become involved politically. You have people making laws about education who have never set foot in the classroom. There is a great need for educators to be at at the table where policy decisions are made.”
The one-and-a-half-day training, the second of which will be in October, walked the educators through the various aspects of a campaign, including fundraising, communicating with voters, running a field program, writing a campaign plan, and policy resources. NEA will provide ongoing services and consultation after the educators launch their campaigns.
Robin Aslakson retired from a rural school district in Fremont, MI, in 2014. Self-described as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” Aslakson said she worries about the demise of public education unless more educators run for office. A former elementary school teacher, Aslakson said she understands how difficult it is for educators to find the time to run for office. She cautioned, however, “With the classroom cuts, with pay freezes and with higher health insurance premiums, if teachers don’t step up to the plate, they will find things will go downhill faster and faster.”
Carrie Pugh, NEA director of Campaigns and Elections, said the goal of the training program is to . . .
fill the pipeline with local educators who will be in office for years to come, who are passionate about our issues, who know their students by name and who are attuned to the needs of their communities. Our responsibility is not just to win elections but to elect educators who understand the need to go on offense for their students and for their schools.
Pugh said running for office is a “really big deal” and can be daunting, especially for educators whose life’s mission is helping their students succeed. The NEA candidate training program, said Pugh, is designed to give educators the tools and support they need to succeed at the ballot box and expand the reach of their advocacy for their students and communities
“The first step out of the classroom is the scariest one,” said third-generation teacher Delagardelle Shelley when describing her decision to become a candidate for her local school board. “But if you’re waiting for an engraved invitation, it’s not coming.” She continued, “Last November happened, and I realized it wasn’t just enough for me to be an informed citizen and to try to educate students to become future citizens. I had to be involved more.”
Delagardelle Shelley has indeed put her doubts and fears aside. Her race for a seat on the Des Moines, Iowa, school board is this September. The district, the state’s largest, has more than 34,000 students