One of my favorite movies is "A Time To Kill," a movie from the 90's that served as a sort of contemporary "To Kill A Mockingbird" where a black man (Samuel L Jackson) is accused of killing two white supremacists that raped his young daughter. Because it is the South, he chooses a white lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) to represent him before an all white jury. In a pivotal scene, McConaughey is about to give up, and this exchange occurs:
This scene captures the heart of what it means to be an advocate. When we advocate, we have an obligation to to speak the words that our charges cannot say to the people they cannot approach. Whether we find ourselves speaking for students or for our fellow teachers, we sometimes must try to put a need or idea into a different perspective. In my last blog, I wrote about the difference between advocates and adversaries- today I want to really dive into how we can be that voice for the voiceless.
Aid Over Act and Advise
I struggle with wanting to provide a solution for someone who is struggling, instead of helping them find that solution themselves. As an advocate, I must remember that I am trying to help a person achieve something, not do it for them. Advocates will be more inclined to ask guiding questions than to tell someone what to do. When a student or a teacher comes to a solution on their own- even with our aid- they take more ownership of the decision. When a person believes that the idea is their own- because it is- their success chance increases greatly. Aside from the questioning side- we need to let the person we are advocating for have the victory themselves. If I do something for a student and get success, they can write that off as my position as a teacher being key. If a student must go to an administrator for something, my role must be background and support, but the student must feel empowered to speak for themselves. My advocacy is to embolden them enough to speak up-- and pave the way with the admin to listen to the student's need.
Wear Their Shoes
Please, do not take this literally.
We need to try to see the world from the perspective of those we advocate for. Here is an example: When students complain to me about a school rule, I try to see why they are bothered by it. Again, I ask questions. Sometimes, I am able to see that their issues arise because they do not get the 'why' of the rule. But often times, I see that they have some legitimate concerns. In those instances, I must advocate for their perspective to those in positions of authority and act as a bridge between the two perspectives. This is the difficult part, because the advocate has to try to see both sides- and what happens if the authority figure is unwilling or unable to see it from the different perspective?
That's when we remember that advocacy is a process.
Okay, this might should have come before the last point, but I really wanted to direct this point to my administrator (and aspiring administrator) friends. You will have students and teachers come to you with ideas and concerns. You will sometimes feel an immediate need to say 'no' because it does not fit your vision or plan.
I am asking you to take a minute and think about what would happen if you said 'yes.'
As a teacher, I have found myself wanting to say 'no' as a default. But when I stop and listen, sometimes the idea the student has is actually better than my vision. But I would not see that unless I thought about the possibilities of a 'yes' response.
Not every idea or complaint is good- but shutting it down arbitrarily will shut down the good ideas that might come in the future- whether the bringer is a student or a teacher.
Outsiders is a very broad term here. Yes, it means those who are actually outsiders and wallflowers and 'different.' It also means that we need to listen to voices other than the usual voices. Good leaders have good and trusted advisers. But listen to the same voices for too long, and they become an echo chamber of yes's and not critical thinkers. Department heads and star students are great to go to, but first year teachers and wallflowers need to be engaged, too.
A couple years ago, when Pecan Trail Intermediate opened in College Station, their principal Kellie Deegear invited students to not only share what they were looking for in teachers, they also sat in on some interviews. Our students are our target audience, our clients- yet we rarely seek their feedback about what kind of teachers or administrators we should hire. And do students get a say in "Teacher of the Month/Year" or is that totally decided by staff? What involvement should students have in these processes?
Advocates are honest. They tell the truth when they fall short, they tell the truth when those they are advocating for fall short. An advocate cannot spare feelings if a change is needed for success to occur. Saying "Keep doing what you're doing" is not advocating, it is softening the blow and missing the point. If there is a failure, it is better to say " They liked a lot, but here is something you need to do differently..." than give no critique at all. My debate students would rather get a harsh critique than one that says "Good job!" while ranking them low. The reason- a critique helps you improve, and that's what an advocate is for.
Being an advocate for students or teachers is a difficult task. Sometimes it means you will take a shot for the ones you are standing up for. Most of the time, it means you need to operate in the background so the other person can have their own victory. But the one constant of any true advocate is this:
They put others first.