As I finish my junior year of college at Vanderbilt University, I think often about my career aspirations and those of my peers. Many of my fellow students, especially those with whom I share interests, want to serve the greater good by working in the field of public policy. In classes throughout our areas of study, we learn about the economic, political, and social structures that create and perpetuate injustices. These problems are so pervasive, and the obstacles in the way of their solutions so entrenched, that the power of the government to advance policy solutions is often the greatest tool we have. To leverage the power of government, however, does not always require that we work in government, as so many of my classmates seek to do.

Teachers, for example, do not pass laws themselves, nor do they determine all the conditions and practices of the schools in which they teach. Even so, teachers are among the most critical stakeholders in education policy. During my internship at SCORE, I have researched state and federal grant programs that support schools that implement professional development initiatives for teachers. The first-hand accounts from teachers of the initiatives’ impact upon their practice are critical to evaluating the success of the grant programs. Just by sharing their experiences in the classroom, educators provide information that advocates and policymakers need to make sound policy decisions.

SCORE recognizes, however, that teachers can assume a more proactive role in the policy-making process by directly engaging as advocates. Through the Tennessee Educator Fellowship (TEF), SCORE brings together a diverse group of educators from across Tennessee and gives them the knowledge, skills, and support they need to advocate for the policies that best serve the needs of their students. With the help of SCORE and each other, Tennessee Educator Fellows bring their classroom-level expertise into the foreground of the debates surrounding education policy at the state and local level.

I have found that SCORE brings the invaluable experience of teachers into its advocacy not only through the Tennessee Educator Fellowship, but also through its own team members, many of whom began their careers as teachers. Their expertise helps to ground SCORE’s work firmly in support of what is best for students.

While I would strongly encourage my fellow students at Vanderbilt to pursue careers in education policy at organizations like SCORE, they should first consider how they can develop the skills or knowledge needed to bring something unique to the table. The lessons we learn from our professors are critical, but they only lay the foundations for us to dive deeper into the issues we care about. Personally, I find myself increasingly drawn to teaching as the best way for me to take such a dive.

To generalize what I have learned about teachers and policymaking at SCORE, I would say that practitioners make good leaders. Leaders synthesize their ground-level observations and those of their followers into broader strategies to drive change. For those of my classmates who wish to solve society’s biggest problems, I would suggest that they consider practical careers as a basis for their advocacy. Healthcare providers, for example, are well-suited to advance healthcare reform, and business people bring useful perspectives to discussions about economic policy. To make an impact, we do not need to jump right into the halls of government after graduation. We can establish ourselves as policymakers in a different sense.

Will Newell is a student at Vanderbilt University and an intern at SCORE.