What does it mean to advocate for students? For me, three years ago it meant creating lessons that would engage students in my science class. Today, it means advancing policies that make schools better. Advocacy takes many forms, and this is my story.

Each day, 3.1 million teachers go to school to advocate for their students. They teach in the largest of cities and the smallest of towns. Each school has its own challenges and opportunities. In my small, rural school in Eastern Kentucky, I discovered that one-size-fits-all policies often did not help my students. So after three years in the classroom, I decided to learn more about what makes schools work best for students and what holds schools back.

As a master’s student at Vanderbilt University, I have focused on applying what I am learning to schools like the one where I taught. Vanderbilt has taught me that there are no silver bullets in educational improvement. I’ve learned both the theory behind systemic problems and real, transferable skills, like being a savvier consumer of research and data. Vanderbilt helps develop advocates for children.

Since I joined the team as a graduate fellow last fall, SCORE has given me an opportunity to marry my newly polished skills with practical applications. SCORE is a dynamic organization that values communication, constant improvement, and a deep focus on students. SCORE emphasizes research, innovation, accuracy, and collaboration. Underscoring this culture is a sense of urgency and belief in all students in Tennessee.

I saw this urgency in action when after SCORE’s 2016-17 annual report release, a long morning filled with celebrating the state’s accomplishments and outlining priorities for the next year, the SCORE team had an opportunity to take a few breaths and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. But the team members were back in the office almost immediately, at their desks hard at work, barely resting for a moment. We knew that the work didn’t end during that event but rather was just beginning. These are advocates in action.

My projects at SCORE have been varied. To begin, I developed a guide for policymakers, telling the story of education to those who make decisions affecting it. The guide describes the governance structures, initiatives, and organizations affecting education in Tennessee. This project was my first glimpse into understanding audience, seeking feedback, and working through multiple iterations toward a final product.

Shortly after SCORE completed the 2016-17 Policymaker’s Guide, the Tennessee Department of Education released its draft plan for accountability, assessment, and school improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act. As members of our team reviewed the plan, I supported by providing research on rural schools, college and career readiness, and how to define students who are economically disadvantaged.

Finally, I also support SCORE’s research and advocacy efforts surrounding state legislative actions. This responsibility has exposed me to the legislative process by analyzing bills and amendments, monitoring committee meetings, and writing bill summaries.

While my time at Vanderbilt has been invaluable in providing the theoretical foundations for the next steps in my career, SCORE has helped define and refine many of the specific skills that will be used in my future.

In the upcoming months, I will be applying to jobs in my home state of Nebraska to put these new skills and experiences into practice. I expect to bring together those skills both from the time I’ve had in the classroom—as a teacher and as a graduate student—and from my fellowship at SCORE to continue my development as an advocate for students.

Apply to join the SCORE Graduate Fellowship this summer. Submit your application by April 7.