On a chilly Saturday this past December, more than 75 educators gathered for the inaugural SCORE Policy Institute for Educators. We learned just how important what we have to say truly is and how to channel our passion and experience into a message people will listen to as we seek to make Tennessee the best place to teach and learn in our country.

I’ve been busy learning about policy and how to be an advocate for students as a 2019-20 SCORE Tennessee Educator Fellow, and I wanted to be a part of the institute to learn even more about how I can play my part in this exciting time for education in Tennessee.

Giving up a Saturday can sometimes seem like a sacrifice, but this Saturday felt like an investment. Instead of craving an afternoon nap after so much powerful learning, I instead went straight to a coffee shop and got to work – truly energized by not only what I learned but also by the notion that I am not alone in wanting to step out in belief that Tennessee is on the right path to improve outcomes for students. Reflecting on just how important teachers are to developing and sustaining this path made me excited to return to work the following Monday and share my learning with my colleagues.

This afternoon energy boost came from a day that featured an overview of our extraordinary progress over the past decade, panels of education stakeholders sharing their perspectives, and breakout session choices matching not only the interests and passions of Tennessee educators but also the needs and rights of Tennessee students. Among the many pages of notes I took, here are three ideas I’m still mulling over several weeks later:

  • If we know better, we must do better. There has never been a more urgent need to improve reading outcomes for Tennessee students. With the wide body of overwhelmingly clear research into the science of reading, we now know what works for children and what we must do differently. As Tennessee school districts prepare to adopt new ELA curriculum for the 2020-2021 school year, we have an exciting opportunity to pursue high-quality materials that provide students not only with access to complex and compelling grade-level texts that build knowledge but also the systematic and explicit phonics instruction that develops confident readers.
  • My “soapbox” is not the only one. My teacher identity is rooted in my experience working with young children and English learners, and that lens certainly shapes my advocacy and how I share my voice for students. The Policy Institute reminded me of my responsibility to consider the needs of each of Tennessee’s almost one million (and counting!) students, and the importance of shared ownership in moving our state forward.
  • The most important part is to start. Advocacy as a “big idea” can seem overwhelming. Most of us have little training in the skills we associate with well-known advocates, but the truth is that there is no perfect way to advocate. It’s also true that there’s no time to wait – Tennessee students need us now, and we can each start by sharing our stories, embracing a learning mindset, and staying rooted in what is best for kids. One courageous conversation can be just the beginning.

If the energy and passion in the room at SCORE’s Policy Institute for Educators were any indication, Tennessee educators are eager to continue learning about policy and ready to use that learning and their knowledge and experience to advocate for the best outcomes for Tennessee students.

Lauren Binkley is an educator with Metro Nashville Public Schools and a 2019-20 Tennessee Educator Fellow.