Ten things I have learned by being a student advocate for two decades:
1. You will feel a sense of power and/or relief when positive change is made.
Do not let this feeling of accomplishment let you rest on your laurels.
2. You will be frustrated or even angry when the needs of those for whom you are advocating goes unnoticed or concerns go unheard.
Take a break. Gather your strength and be ready to go forward in the future. Anger will get in the way of progress. Be Calm and Advocate On.
3. Change is slow, sometimes it is non-existent. Not all advocates work in the same way. This was a huge revelation for me.
In my advocacy work, multiple students benefited; students other than my own, sometimes with a snowball effect, leading to positive change for those in other grades – grades levels or content where students had not yet experienced the difficulties we were advocating to change. While this is positive, many do not realize the positive change made for them was born of a difficulty someone else had. Maybe your child did well because of someone else’s difficulties. Please keep that in mind.
5. Advocates are often invisible forces.
This is still true today and something that I fight to come to terms with. Recently, I learned of a change in teaching staff for a particular course that historically caused many students trouble has been instituted for next year. This is, in part, due to myself and a very small group of other students and parents speaking out. Future students will not have difficulty with this teacher in this course. No one realizes how the road has been paved.. You must be willing to accept this invisibility. Sometimes, it is hard.
6. It is not all for one and one for all, despite what some want you to believe. It should be and can be, but is not, yet.
Some advocate for their student only. Thoughts of others who qualify for the same services are not present. This is a very selfish mindset, but one I believe born of some cut throat tactics that are used due to the importance placed on GPA or class rank. Despite this, I am not for abolishing those traditional indicators of success. Do not think that someone will advocate for your child. If you see the need for change or opportunity, do not wait for someone else to speak up. You have to be the advocate. You will learn how to advocate by actively engaging in the activity. While you are at it, advocate for others at the same time. This is part of the mindset of global learning.
7. Supporting individuality does not mean selectively leaving students out.
This brings us to the importance of having standardized pathways for enrichment, advancement, and other opportunities. All those who qualify should be offered opportunity, no matter whether they have an advocate or not. The opportunities should be presented to all. My experience has been that this is not the norm. Individuality comes into play through choosing which path to take.
8. It costs nothing to listen. Hearing is the first key to change.
Over the years I have asked for many meetings with teachers, administrators, and even two different superintendents. This has been an enlightening experience. I have learned that most of those in authority will listen, but many do not hear. Follow-up with educational concerns from stake-holders or community members is lacking. Change is almost elusive. Few understand and are even puzzled by advocates that are not after a single beneficiary (the advocate’s student). Hearing concerns takes more than just listening. Following up on concerns should be part of a district’s continuous improvement.
9. Being an advocate is lonely.
This is one of the basic truisms of advocacy in an educational setting that desires reform. Parents and students are afraid to speak out. Honestly, I understand. There are many reasons for this hesitancy. However, some expect you to speak for them and reap the benefits from your outspokenness. Make sure you have support, in the form of someone to talk with, at the very least. No one wants to jump on a sinking ship that is full of finger pointers. Be the one who sticks your finger in the hole, but do not expect the survivors to thank you.
10. Advocates need to network. This is something I initially learned when our school district formed a Talented and Gifted Advocacy Parent Group in 2010.
The more people you know and can gather to aid you in your quest for student advocacy, the better. There IS strength in numbers. Although there will be many opinions, if student needs are put first, outcomes will benefit more than just one. You need to know support systems and your network will change as time moves forward. Some people will remain constant, some will find priorities or philosophies differ enough to allow them to fall away from the network. But, others will hear your message and join. Keep talking!
Just recently, a parent contacted me to let me know she had advocated for our entire student body at the high school with concerns regarding grading practices. She asked to meet with me to share her reception. She knew I had advocated for our student body in past, and now, she was doing the same! I was so proud of her efforts, the inclusiveness of her concerns, and her ability to let me know from where her inspiration had come!