‘I was a pebble in this guy’s shoe.’ How one teacher found his voice in the Statehouse

Dozens of educators gathered recently to tell stories of the challenges and joys of teaching. The event was organized by teacher Ronak Shah and sponsored by Teach for America. In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Patrick McAlister is the director of policy for Teach Plus Indianapolis, an organization that trains teachers to be policy advocates. He previously taught middle and high school English at Indiana Math and Science Academy-North, an Indianapolis charter school. For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

I’d been teaching for a couple of years in my four walls by myself a lot of times. I was teaching middle school — you know the chaos. And I was trying to do my best.

A friend approached me and said, “I need you to talk with a legislator.” They were about ready to vote on something that I cared about (whether to leave the Common Core State Standards). And he’s like, “I need you to come speak.”

I thought, “Why me?” My energy, my life goes into this classroom to do what I can, and I don’t have anything to say to this guy.

He gave me some talking points, and he said, “Study those, and we will go in, and we will meet with the guy, and everything will be OK.”

We go to the Indiana General Assembly and meet with a state representative. I go into this guy’s cubicle and sit down. He’s not there yet. And on one wall, he has a bunch of Austrian economists, like (Friedrich) Hayek and all those guys. And on the other wall, he has all of the Founding Fathers, and then his picture in the middle. This was the guy that I was supposed to convince to vote the way I wanted him to.

It gets worse. He comes in, and he sweeps his coat back and sits down. And on his belt — this is in the Statehouse, by the way — on his belt is the biggest handgun I have ever seen in my entire life. Like, if the zombie apocalypse were to happen tomorrow, I would be standing behind that guy.

I’m positive this meeting isn’t going to go anywhere. So he comes in, sits back in his chair, spreads his legs, and he is like, “Alright, what have you got?” And so, in my head, my initial thinking was, I’m just going to read the talking points. But I have a choice to make, do I spend my time just regurgitating things … or do I talk to him about kids and my classroom.

I started talking about this lesson I taught with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and I talked about how, we didn’t just read the novel, we looked at these images of the time that’s covered in the novel, we listened to blues and we listened to Billie Holiday. And he started nodding his head, and I talked about the other primary source documents that we read, the letters that we read.

(He) ended the conversation asking me questions, looking me in the eyes and hearing what I had to say. Now, at the end, he didn’t actually vote the way I wanted him to — he was afraid that the federal government was coming to take over this issue and couldn’t get past that in his head in order to support what I was trying to get him to support.

But he said, at the committee hearing where he was going to vote, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue, and I’m not going to to support it. But I talked to a teacher and this teacher made me think.”

I was a pebble in this guy’s shoe. I was one pebble, one person. … After I heard that, I realized, what would it be like if he had 10 pebbles in his shoe? What if his whole shoe was full of pebbles, and he couldn’t stick his foot in there. He’d have to do something different. That’s why I believe teacher advocacy is important when it comes to policy.