Hartford teacher: I have no choice but to speak up

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I look forward to a day when quality and equitable educational opportunities for all students is not just a vision, but a reality. Until that day comes, I know I have an obligation to use my voice as a classroom teacher to inform legislator’s decisions and help drive progress in the right direction.

As a teacher, I am on the front lines of education and I’m able to tend to my kids’ social and emotional needs in addition to their academic development. Few people or professions have the exact experience or insight that teachers have. We know that our students are complicated and diverse; they have unique needs that deserve attention the same as any other. As teachers, we work every day to ensure those unique needs are met, and I think it’s time for our politicians to do the same.

My pedagogy on the importance of teacher voice is derived from my upbringing as a child in foster care separated from my parents and siblings.  That upbringing helped shape my understanding of words like community, support system, and safety as well as terms like unwanted, rejection, and biases. One of the things that helped me sort through the various emotions that seemed to swallow me at times was my schooling — its stability and structure and all of the proclamations from teachers that I was somebody. I needed to hear this because the rhetoric that I heard in my foster home was constant grumbling that I interpreted then as “you’re not expected to amount to much.”

That experience shapes and informs my career. Now that I’m a teacher, I can return the favor and influence students to achieve higher than their circumstances.

If our state is going to put students first, then we need to hear from teachers. Listening to teachers will promote a better learning environment and school culture, result in less teacher turnover, and increase student achievement. And when it comes to school finance reform, listening to teachers will help inform legislators of the needs on the ground and assist in forging the right path for any education funding policy or formula.

When I joined Educators for Excellence, it was because of their understanding of the power of teacher voice and the need to ensure teachers are at the table when policy makers are deciding on the future of our students. As a member of E4E, I’ve been able to insert myself and my voice into conversations where teachers seldom exist. I’ve solicited teacher input through surveys on issues plaguing education in our district, been a part of a team of educators to research unique student populations and put forth recommendations to positively impact Hartford Public Schools and Connecticut at large.

Lending my voice as a teacher means feeling empowered in knowing that I can make a difference for my students both in and outside of the classroom. The truth is, I won’t be satisfied until I have the opportunity to reach as many students as possible beyond my classroom and school. Right now that means making sure state leaders see the value in equitably funding schools to make success attainable for all students.

In short, I’ve used my voice for many reasons, but the biggest one is because I don’t have a choice. As long as students who look like me are still facing similar systemic barriers in today’s classrooms that I had to face 20-25 years ago …I don’t have a choice but to speak up.

Syeita Rhey-Fisher is a teacher in the Hartford Public Schools.

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