By New York Fellow Petria May

The America Achieves New York Educator Voice Fellowship is a little like the cool genius who sits in silence at the back of the classroom for the whole semester, then blows away the teacher with a perfect essay. Initially, I had no idea who founded the organization or what its mission was, but once my colleague and friend Marianna Wiles (a 2015 Fellow) nominated me, I knew the fellowship would offer a valuable experience. 

I could list lines from the impressive resumes of the 2016 America Achieves New York Educator Voice conference speakers and fellows. I could tell you that the vibe in the room elevated my soul to a place of positivity and possibility. I could note the near-perfect professionalism and punctuality of America Achieves employees. Reliable as school bells, the meetings began on time.

However, to offer you a list would be too much like box-checking, something we America Achieves Fellows know fails to address the deep concerns we have about public education. We aim outside the boxes because, through our varied experiences, we understand that students’ needs cannot be boxed in and cannot be remedied solely by waving a statutory wand. Education needs our voices.

We aim outside the boxes because, through our varied experiences, we understand that students’ needs cannot be boxed in and cannot be remedied solely by waving a statutory wand. Education needs our voices.

Elevating educator voices was the essence of our conference, but not all of it. On my first day, I was recruited for, and eventually accepted a position that I was not seeking. On the second day, I learned that, to my delight, I was surrounded by people who are obsessed with engaging in thoughtful, intelligent exchanges of ideas about pedagogy and education policy. On the third day, I learned that education leaders are very good at splitting a restaurant bill eight ways. On the last day, I knew that fortune had smiled on all of us: we had created an alliance of strong and supportive educator voices. The New York Educator Voice Fellowship had set us on a positive path toward continuing our effort to concurrently educate our students and change education policy. This was one of those rare and joyous occasions where I am ecstatic to be a member of a club that wants me, too.

The New York Educator Voice Fellowship had set us on a positive path toward continuing our effort to concurrently educate our students and change education policy.

The New York Educator Voice Fellowship convenes educators in order to elevate our voices—for the benefit of students—in the places where change happens: the media, federal and state legislatures and at school. The organization understands that forgetting to set a place at the table for us is like having a feast with no main course, a wedding with no couple, a haircut with no hair. You get the point: including school-based personnel in discussions about education is a pre-condition to the success of any policy involving students. Our conference unveiled concrete measures aimed at helping our public education system to find its way forward.

Forgetting to set a place at the table for us is like having a feast with no main course, a wedding with no couple, a haircut with no hair.

I felt renewed in my practice as I listened to professionals with legislative, media and education experience explain, for example, the structure of the state legislature, important dates on the state legislative calendar, the names of the members of the state Senate Education Committee, instructions on how to a create a bill that will eventually reach the governor, how to write a perfect pitch for the media, an overview of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and other information designed to help us to help our students. 

In one presentation, we gained invaluable wisdom from Jim Malatras, a member of New York’s Executive Chamber who serves as Director of State Operations and advises Governor Cuomo on education issues. Mr. Malatras defined the various arms of state education, including the Executive Chamber, the Board of Regents, the State University of New York and the New York State Education Department, each having its own policy considerations and concentrations. Understanding the distinctions among these different organizations will increase our opportunities to be heard.

Daniel Cain, an associate at Albany Strategic Advisors and former New York state assemblyman, offered unique insight into how the state assembly functions. Kate Gerson, managing partner of Unbound Education (UnboundEd.org) never lost my attention with her directness, including the statement that the New York Educator Voice Fellowship offers a “space to have a populace that is more prepared for discourse.” Yaasss!

In addition to being introduced to inspiring speakers adept at reaching legislators, we were given a crash course on how to effectively connect with the media. While the New York Educator Voice Fellowship set about providing us with the tools that will elevate our voices, we were given ample time to honor each other with constructive feedback and encouragement. Rather than focusing on agreement with others, we concentrated on helping our colleagues to elevate their positions in a way that made sense to them.

After the conference, I reached out to more than one fellow, began mutually following several on Twitter and continued drafting invitation letters to federal and state legislators in my school’s district. The conference was energizing. I look forward to continuing the work that we began.

Petria May has seized opportunities to publish her writing (published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and several local publications), practice Big Law and small law and operate a vintage clothing store profiled in Vogue magazine. She now approaches teaching with the same diligence and dedication that she has always given to her passions. The raw and refined intellect and heart of Ms. May's students show her that every day is an opportunity to show love through labor. She would like to take this space to say to her students: thank you (and that yes, this statement is chock full of alliteration).

 

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