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  • Shawn Sheehan

Three Tips for Teacher Voters

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

This fall, I am serving as my school district’s Government Relations Liaison full-time; a position I beta-tested last year half-time. The Texas State Legislature meets every odd-numbered year, so thankfully my Superintendent saw the value in having an educator in-house to cover legislative advocacy efforts this school year. Now, my focus on school reopening isn’t tied to a student roster or virtual classroom, but to funding and policy decisions at the state and federal level.

Schools that have already started the academic year have braved the first wave of contradictory criticism from the public. One of the biggest challenges school districts have faced in this pandemic/election season is that every action they make is hyper-politicized. The decision to go virtual or hold classes in-person is somehow an indicator of political party affiliation. Leadership at the district, local, and state levels are in a constant tug-of-war, with most community members not realizing that dollars are tied to doors opening. One example came when the Texas Attorney General stated that county health officials cannot preemptively close school campuses and that doing so may jeopardize funding. The Texas Education Agency then had to update guidance and school boards and superintendents had to reconsider school start dates and reopening plans.

There is no doubt that the interconnectedness of schools to other social and economic factors is paramount. The U.S. House Oversight Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis held a hearing on reopening schools in early August and some of the talking points included child abuse, rising unemployment, nutrition, mental health, affordable housing, shuttering of small businesses, multi-generational households, vaccines, systemic racism, and telecommunications. School openings and their consequent successes and/or failures will heavily influence voters in November.

In concert with the back-to-school season, both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions took place serving as marquee reminders of the upcoming November election. Educators (which are now considered essential workers by the White House) have enough on their plates already, so to help prepare for voting, I have three tips for educators to consider as they head to the polls.

First: plan to vote early. You can avoid the crowds and find a time that works best for you by voting early. Like many educators, you’re uncertain on whether you’ll be doing in-person instruction on November 3rd or if you'll be working remotely - either way, it’s to your advantage to vote early. And if you’re planning on doing a mail-in ballot (if available in your state) and you have to request it, do it now. With the USPS recently in the political crosshairs and folks already experiencing delays and changes to their deliveries, election officials are already bracing for delays in mail-in ballot counts. Side note, don’t check out this article on how USPS was blamed for the death of thousands of chicks.

In the last general election, I woke up bright and early to arrive at my polling location right as it opened, confident I’d have plenty of time before my first period began. I ended up cutting it close and I had colleagues who found themselves waiting in much longer lines after school. I would not take that same chance this November. Vote. Early. Besides, you probably already know whose box you’re going to check on the ballot.

Second: your monetary contributions to campaigns, small or big, make a difference. But the top office contenders don’t need your dollars as badly as those running for local seats. Presidential and Congressional candidates enjoy easier access to PAC contributions and support from national organizations. It’s the smaller fish that have to fight for every contribution and yours, no matter what size, can have a bigger impact on a local race.

When I was running for Oklahoma State Senate, all the small dollar contributions added up and made a significant difference. Even if you can only contribute $5, that’s $5 more that the campaign can use to secure a few more mailers, a few more stamps for thank you notes, or a few more office supplies to keep the campaign moving forward. In addition, just having a higher number of small dollar donors is a key indicator for bigger donors. The individual contributions act as a vote of confidence and before an organization or PAC considers writing a larger check, they want to see that actual people in your community are behind you. So if you’re serious about a candidate, contributing just a few dollars makes a difference - don’t ever doubt that.

Third: stop rewarding political extremism. My first two points are certainly more objective and rooted in data, this point is less neutral. The thing is - we’re seeing this massive partisan divide because we, as educators but also citizens, continue to give time and attention to the radical extremities of the parties. And that makes sense, of course. It’s as if you have two students in the back of the classroom at opposite corners igniting fires and throwing things at each other incessantly. It’s disruptive and harmful to everyone in the room. But classroom teachers know that when positive reinforcement is absent in a classroom, the climate and culture cannot move forward with learning or growth. We can’t ignore the students in the middle of the classroom whose voices are more reasonable, calculated, and considerate.

There are moderate Democrats, Republicans, and third party candidates who didn’t make it past primaries because the fringe narrative took over. If they did survive the primary, then you’re lucky enough to be able to elevate them in the general election and we need to do that. If you’re tired of the pendulum swing in education policy, change the parameters so the swing narrows. One way we can do this is to stop rewarding the political tribalism that feeds the belief that one party is all-virtuous and the other will destroy the country. Don’t validate the candidates running on obstructionist platforms without ideas of their own. It’s clear some individuals are only seeking to win office and are not interested in governing or addressing change. Even Pepsi and Coke come in flavors other than original.

Also: like, retweet, and share the candidates you support on social media. If you’re unable to contribute financially, this is a great way to garner some positive attention for the candidates you support. Social media presence is one metric that bigger dollar donors consider before writing checks. To be clear, you should not be posting on social media during your work day - especially political posts. If you’re a public school employee, it is unlawful to use school district resources for electioneering or political advertising. But on your own time and on your own devices, you should absolutely shout out the candidates who you feel are worth supporting. Know this, though - social media votes do NOT translate to actual votes. Trust me, I know. I had the title of state teacher of the year when I ran for office along with high visibility on social media, but it wasn’t enough to win my election in 2016. So while you’re cheering on your candidate of choice on social media, go ahead and send some early voting reminders to your family and colleagues.

At a time when it feels the partisan divide in our country is widening each day, you might feel like ignoring it all. I hear you. I mean, I really, REALLY hear you. But at a minimum, we have a duty to be informed voters so I hope you’ll consider voting early, making a small contribution to a local race, and intentionally reducing time and attention spent on far-right and far-left coverage and consider those willing to engage in the middle.

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