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In Alabama, Teachers School Lawmakers

Mar 15, 2016
Originally published on March 16, 2016 1:42 pm

Alabama lawmakers face a legislative calendar this year with about 50 — yes 50 — education-related bills.

And many of the people drafting those laws haven't been inside a classroom since they were students themselves.

"People tend to think that they're experts in education because they were educated," says Kira Aaron, an English teacher at Vestavia Hills High School, just outside Birmingham. "And so, since they've sat in a classroom, they know what's going on, and how to best tell us what to do."

Turns out a lot of teachers feel that way, not just in this state but across the country. Alabama's teacher of the year, Jennifer Brown, was at a national conference when an idea struck her.

"The teacher of the year from Arizona was talking about inviting legislators into her classroom and what a great experience it had been," Brown says. "And I'd just never thought to do it."

When she got home, she went full-steam ahead, on email, Twitter and Facebook, inviting legislators in and encouraging fellow teachers to do the same.

The lawmakers turned Brown down at first, but eventually, several took her up on it.

The result: Students at Vestavia Hills High lean over lab tables with state Rep. Matt Fridy, giving him a refresher on how to balance chemical equations. State Sen. Jabo Waggoner, who's been in the legislature for half a century, learns 3-D design, reads The Scarlet Letter, and talks about time in German class. The politicians also hear about the school's challenges — a shortage of special education teachers and kids with little parental support; and its successes — students winning national contests or getting scholarships.

"There's so much that they do that we don't get to have a say in," says 10th-grader Ellen Walton. "So getting to actually interact with them means a lot."

For teachers though, having a legislator watch can be intimidating. It's new territory for most politicians, too.

"We don't go where we're not invited," says Waggoner, adding that he's been in countless schools, but not in the classrooms. "What we do is go into the principal's office and give them a check. And have our picture made."

He and Fridy say Brown's invitation to see actual teaching was different.

"This is probably the most important thing we do as elected officials: deal with our school systems and education systems in this state," says Waggoner.

So Brown is trying to start a movement to get more lawmakers into classrooms. Waggoner calls his visit an "eye-opener."

"It'll pay off, I promise you," he says to Brown before heading out the door.

"I think it's great. They need to know what we're doing here in order to make policies that are beneficial to our students," says Kira Aaron. "The choices that they make really do have an impact on what we can and can't do."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Here's an idea - people who make laws that govern schools should actually know what goes on in the classroom. Some teachers in Alabama like that idea so much they sent an invitation to their state lawmakers. Dan Carsen of WBHM in Birmingham reports.

DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: Here's the problem teachers are trying to address.

KIRA AARON: People tend to think that they're experts in education because they were educated.

CARSEN: Kira Aaron's an English teacher at Vestavia Hills High School just outside Birmingham.

AARON: And since they've sat in a classroom, they know what's going on and how to best tell us what to do.

CARSEN: The people she's talking about are lawmakers. Aaron's coworker, Alabama Teacher of the Year Jennifer Brown, decided she wanted to change things up.

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, I was at a Teacher of the Year Conference and someone was telling me - the teacher of the year from Arizona - she was talking about inviting the legislators to the classroom and what a great experience it had been. And I just never thought to do it.

CARSEN: At first, lawmakers politely turned her down.

BROWN: So I pushed it out on Twitter.

CARSEN: Eventually, a few took her up on it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: If we put the two in front of the aluminum on this side...

MATT FRIDY: That'll give you two OH3s.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes, sir.

CARSEN: State Rep. Matt Fridy gets a refresher on balancing chemical equations.

FRIDY: OK, that was an easy one. Let's do a hard one. Oh, man, number six looks like fun.

CARSEN: This can be intimidating for teachers not used to VIPs in their rooms. And it's new territory for most politicians too.

JABO WAGGONER: Well, we don't go where we're not invited, OK?

CARSEN: That's State Senator Jabo Waggoner. He's been in the Legislature for half a century. He's been in countless schools, but he and Fridy say Jennifer Brown's invitation was different.

BROWN: And I appreciate you guys...

WAGGONER: What we do...

BROWN: ...Taking us up on it.

WAGGONER: ...We go into the principal's office and...

BROWN: Yeah.

WAGGONER: ...Give them a check.

BROWN: Yeah, well...

WAGGONER: Have our picture (laughter).

FRIDY: That's right.

CARSEN: They spent real time in classrooms. They learned 3-D design, read "The Scarlet Letter" and talked about time in German. They heard about the school's challenges - a shortage of special ed teachers, kids with little parental support - and its successes - students winning national contests or getting scholarships.

WAGGONER: This is probably the most important thing we do as elected officials - deal with our school systems and the education system in this state.

CARSEN: Do you hope that this becomes more common?

WAGGONER: Oh, it needs to - sure it does.

CARSEN: Tenth-grader Ellen Walton hopes so too.

ELLEN WALTON: There's so much that they do that we don't get to have a say in, so getting to actually, like, interact with them means a lot.

CARSEN: So Jennifer Brown's trying to start a movement to get more lawmakers into classrooms. Waggoner called his visit an eye-opener.

WAGGONER: It'll pay off, I promise.

BROWN: Well, we're going to keep pushing it, and I'm going to push other teachers to do it.

CARSEN: English teacher Kira Aaron's on board.

AARON: I think it's great. They need to know what we're doing here in order to make policies that are beneficial to our students.

CARSEN: This comes as the budget in almost 50 education-related bills are being considered in the state legislature.

AARON: The choices that they make really do have an impact on what we can and can't do.

CARSEN: With all that's at stake, getting legislators into actual classrooms could be key, and if Jennifer Brown has her way, common. For NPR News in Vestavia Hills, Ala., I'm Dan Carsen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.