I have gained so much valuable knowledge and insight about the legislative process in Utah over the past few weeks. It was a jam-packed session and as a newbie my learning curve was steep. These are my main take-aways:
#1: Legislators are Regular People
Sometimes they are even flawed people. Other than a citizenship requirement and being a legal voter over the age of 25 in a specific district, if you have the support and backing of enough local people who believe you can represent them, you could be one too. I had an unrealistic idea of who our local senators and representatives were. I was gratified that so many of those I encountered or observed were intelligent, well-spoken, amenable and truly concerned about the well-being of their constituents. I was also dismayed by those whose actions are less guided by the public good or even (dare I say it) by common sense or reason. It makes the need for opposition and meaningful debate crucial, including the honest voices of citizens impacted by the bills they seek to introduce and turn into law.
#2: Bills are Political
Partisan politics run deep into state matters. Legislators seeking re-election often see their state positions as springboards for positions in more important greener political pastures. They will do what it takes to get there and there is often an agenda behind the introduction of a bill. Support for - or opposition to - a bill often runs along party lines. Again, this is why opposition and debate are important and necessary.
#3: A Bill Never (or hardly ever) Dies
As time is limited to a session of a mere 45 days, bills from previous sessions are often resuscitated to enjoy new life. Bills that arrived with much fanfare and noise sometimes limp off into amendment heaven, where they are not bothersome but could always make a comeback. These, along with tabled bills and others that have been put on hold, may remain in bill purgatory indefinitely. Only a bill specifically vetoed by the governor actually dies, and even those can return from the dead at some point.
#4: We Make the Laws
Even the ones we don’t like. As we, the people, elect our legislative body, they are our voices in the congress or senate at both the state and federal level. They are appointed by us and represent our will. If they do so disingenuously, then the most workable remedy is to simply not re-elect them for office. It is ultimately the ordinary citizen, the very one who “doesn’t like to get involved in politics” who controls the political landscape. We need to apply that duty wisely so that we choose appropriate and responsible representation.
#5: Utah Teachers and Students are Represented
I am in awe of how many incredible individuals campaign, lobby, and yes, fight on behalf of teachers and students in our state. The UEA Legislative Team works harder and does more than I realized. They are the unsung heroes of our association, putting in hours of effort strategizing, collaborating, studying and contributing to make sure that we are given a voice during the legislative session at the Utah Capitol. Their work doesn’t stop there though. I know that what we have seen during the session is just a small part of all that they do. If you are not a member yet, I urge you to sign up so that this important work can continue.
At the beginning of our journey as Legislative Policy Ambassadors this 2021 session, Dr. Sara Jones spoke to us about the need for teacher support during the pandemic. Her words about how educators are overloaded and need support now more than ever, really resonated with me. It is comforting that she and the entire team “get it.” They recognize and know our fears and concerns as teachers. They are not just passively listening, they are doing. There is a lot that educators still need. The words of Susan B. Anthony remind us that, “It is only through our discontent with the way things are that we can hope for change.” I am hopeful that the UEA Legislative Team, along with our voices and support, can inspire that change.
UEA Policy Ambassador
East High School
Friday the 13th of March 2020 teachers were notified by our district in Moab that we were going to change from an in-classroom curriculum to an online platform. Which platform, what resources, how to meet with students were some of the unknowns. The schools made broad strokes for expectations but finding the resources and learning how to use and deliver the resources were up to each content team. Teachers GO! Our district provided what they could in ways of guidance, but we frontline workers had to implement and work a plan within the transition week.
During one of those four days the students arrived to pick up their Chromebooks and get agendas for each class, for the unknown time this would be occurring, and say goodbye in-person. There were tears and shock, with parents and students trusting us and teachers jumping into the unknown.
It was turning a switch from being an experienced teacher who knew what to do in a classroom, to having to reinvent EVERYTHING in a matter of days. What platform would we choose, what online resources could we learn, deliver and choose to support our curriculum? How would we monitor, communicate and hold students accountable? It was more than overwhelming, but we persevered.
Students became very adept at communicating through email and Google Classroom, all hours of the day and night. I had to turn off my phone at 10 p.m. so it wouldn’t wake me up!
Then when it was over, (but not over) we came back in August to make plans how to safely teach our kiddos. Precautions included student pods (to limit exposure), sanitizing classroom and hands before and after each class, a no hands-on for materials (papers, art supplies, manipulatives) unless they could be given to each student independently throughout the day or sanitized after each class. Teaching a blended class (online learners while still having students in class) was included in this change. Once again teachers changed their delivery to meet the current situation.
Through all of this what I have noticed most is not that teachers are burnt out (they are), but that teachers are truly innovative. Students are adaptive, keeping their masks on all day, social distancing and actively participating in keeping our school safe. They are engaged, pleased to be with others and facing this world-wide pandemic with aplomb. This is their new normal and students have approached it not with bitterness about what was, but with gratitude for what they can do. As a 2021 UEA Policy Ambassador, I have contacted my representatives to thank them for what they are doing for us, letting them know my perspective on matters that are important to a small district. I admit that I am a little out of my element without a face-to-face contact, trusting our UEA team to guide and help me navigate as a Policy Ambassador.
This week, during the February 4 UEA Capital Insights briefing with the UEA Legislative Team, Sen. Katheen Riebe spoke to us and said the legislature has changed the verbiage from “academic loss” due to COVID-19 to “education interrupted.” This says to me the legislature is focusing on the future of education and acknowledging that during COVID -19 we were not able to provide the quality education we all wanted. Families and schools adapted to what could be done to persevere, knowing that we all would prefer to return to what was. As we evolve through this pandemic, we have been forced to find new ways to teach and students to learn. This innovation has given us the opportunity to reevaluate from “this is what we have always done” to a position of “value added.” Will this activity, assignment, procedure address the needs of my students? How will I deliver my content to address the state standards while keeping my students and myself safe? How will I communicate with parents?
Students are coming and going in our blended online/in-person classrooms (home sick, traveling, concerns about COVID exposures). Families and teachers have made headway for students and teachers to stay in touch while the student is not present. Daily we adapt to changes and go with the flow. Teachers are there to teach. We get joy from the kiddo who says, “I got it” or “I don’t get it.” It says they are engaged and participating in their future. My kiddos know when they are out of balance and will ask for a moment of Zen (which is a bell I ring and give them something to think about, like what you hear during the bell sound in a darkened classroom) then they share. It takes 2-3 minutes, and they are relaxed and ready to learn.
We all need to find our moments of Zen, to appreciate the good that is going on, to acknowledge the work being done on our behalf by others while still holding our leaders accountable. I am going to make the most of my stint as a Policy Ambassador, enjoying the challenging and complicated work that others are doing on our behalf in education.
UEA Policy Ambassador
Grand Middle School
During the pandemic, several state agencies translated communications into languages other than English to communicate critical information to all Utahns. Much to their surprise, government agencies learned that sharing documentation in any language other than English is prohibited in our state code. S.B. 214 Official Language Amendments, preserves English as the official language of Utah and revises the law to allow, but not mandate, government to translate important communications into other languages.
Teacher and School Counselor Pipeline Program
Utah is currently experiencing a shortage of teachers and school counselors in public schools. Several school districts are working on innovative approaches to meet teacher needs. H.B. 381 Grow Your Own Teacher and School Counselor Pipeline Program supports school districts by creating a three-year pilot program to provide scholarships for paraprofessionals working toward becoming licensed teachers or licensed school counselors. This allows school districts to work with individuals they already know will be excellent teachers and counselors to become licensed professionals.
USCA Legislative Liaison
Teaching middle school comes with its challenges and rewards. This year as I introduced myself to my online and in-person classes, a student approached to introduce herself. I was surprised as my student felt comfortable sharing her likes, dislikes and family background. Towards the end of our conversation, she said, “I have never had a teacher that looks like me.” Her words stayed with me and I realized why it’s important to have diverse representation in our schools. We share similar identities, backgrounds and are first generation Latina American.
As an educator I have been actively involved in analyzing, reflecting, and interacting learning curriculum and pedagogy. I am constantly criticizing lessons, thinking about improving curriculum and engaging students.
This past week the Utah Education Association mentored a group of educators in the legislature. I realize why it's important to have an educator’s voice influencing policy. Now more than ever, I encourage my fellow BIPOC colleagues to get involved in spaces where our unique experiences can influence education reform. We learned from mentors who were willing to share their experience lobbying for education bills. I connected with colleagues who had little knowledge on Utah education legislation and enjoyed learning alongside them. All our conversations had one commonality and that was to seek ways to improve our education system. This mentorship has shown me the power of networking, the beauty of creating relationships, and building a community of educators because it does take a village.
Educators actively involved in education policy reform are a journey towards change. United we can move mountains and create change.
UEA Policy Ambassador
Jordan School District
I love musicals! One of my all-time favorites is called “Newsies.” This musical highlights the turn-of-the-century and the dawn of unions. Boys who wanted to sell newspapers had to buy the newspapers first. The big newspaper companies were increasing the prices for the newsies and this eventually led to the newsies going on strike and unionizing. They wanted fair prices for the work they were doing and to be able to have some say in what was happening.
I was thinking about this idea and how unfortunate it is that these days, sometimes the word “union” is used as a type of insult. But unions are a critical piece to ensuring that best practice and good policy happen. Those who oppose our Utah Education Association often use the argument that it is not for students.
As I have worked this legislation session as a UEA Policy Ambassador, it is strikingly evident that students are the heart and soul of the work of our union. Good policy and laws help our students! And the experts of what our students need are our professionals in the school buildings: teachers, school counselors, administrators…everyone!
Not everyone is able to take time away from their students to meet with legislators during a legislative session. This is where the union is a critical component of student advocacy. I have come to learn that many of our lawmakers are very well intentioned, but they are severely uninformed and undereducated about current school practices, policies and even laws. This is why it is imperative that we have people on the ground who can go to bat for our students as new policy and law is proposed and debated.
Now is the time for us to seize the day! THANK YOU to each of you for this opportunity to support our students!
The 2021 Legislative Session has finally ENDED! It has been a whirlwind of a year and we are excited that this session has finally come to an end. It was a great year for education in the 2021 Session and we hope for continued success in the following sessions. If you have any questions about the process of the session or how to get more involved please reach out to your USCA Legislative Team!
HB 381: Grow Your Own Teacher and School Counselor focuses on scholarship opportunities to strengthen the teacher and school counselor pipelines in Utah. The Grow Your Own Teacher and School Counselor Pipeline Program is a competitive grant program created to provide funding to LEAs to award scholarships to paraprofessionals, school counselor assistants, and school counselor interns for education and training to become licensed teachers or licensed school counselors. The pathway options for school counselor candidates are as follows:
Route 1- School Counselor Assistant: Candidates for this route would be enrolled in a bachelor’s degree in a related field and are committed to earning a master’s degree in school counseling. Stipends would be provided for completing practicum hours in a school counseling setting. Scholarship opportunities would be provided to those qualifying through application to continue their education in school counseling.
Route 2 – School Counselor Intern: Cohorts of candidates for this route shall commit to a full year, paid internship experience.
Creating a system that integrates and embeds pre-service candidates into the education workforce early and through their preparation program would:
School Counseling Program Specialist
Utah State Board of Education
The Utah School Counseling Association has publicly announced their opposition to HB 299. We wanted to inform you of what the bill says and why we as an association took a stance against it.
HB 299 is a bill currently being talked about in the legislative session that would create a one-year pilot program to address mental health in schools. The bill itself would create a one-year pilot program meant to provide training and education on mental health to selected local education associations (LEAs). The State Board of Education would then be tasked with creating criteria for evaluating programs interested in implementing these pilot programs in our school district and choose up to 6 LEAs to participate in the pilot program. The funding for this program would be allocated just one time for the 1-year of the pilot program.
This program initially sounds like a great opportunity to help support our counselors that are serving in more rural school districts, but as you get further into the details of the bill and the behind the scenes for the creation of this bill USCA has some major concerns, that we feel need to be dealt with prior to giving our support or changing our stance on this bill. Our concerns for the bill include:
Did you wake up this morning thinking, “I really want to advocate today?” Most educators do not start their careers thinking that a day at the capitol for a legislative session or advocating for school counseling positions at a state school board meeting is part of their job description. I am sure many of us are even unaware of the great impact we can have by making an impression in a committee hearing or with a state representative. However, doing these things is integral to how we, as educators, do our job.
Many times, well-intentioned legislators take on a bill not knowing every facet of the bill or how it impacts the way that we meet the needs of our students. Often, boots on the ground are quick to blame when something goes awry, but how many are solution-focused with suggestions and support? Legislators are not always educational experts, so they are tasked with building a small circle of trusted advisers who are experts in the field. This makes it necessary that we network, build relationships, and become the trusted experts they turn to when they need to understand the context and impact of any bill crossing their desks.
Reaching out to your representatives may seem scary and intimidating at first, but after doing it a few times, I realized that they are just people, like me, who want to do a great job and better the lives of those they serve. Sound familiar? Advocating for students and our value as partners in education validates that representatives really do want to hear from their constituents and want more information on what they can do to help people in the State of Utah. If you are uncomfortable talking to your legislators by yourself, find an advocacy buddy. Brainstorm ways to reach out, proof each other’s emails for content, and support one another if you reach out to talk to a representative. If you don’t know who to ask, send me an email. I’d love to be your partner in effective change! I am encouraging you all to think about becoming a UEA Policy Ambassador or joining UEA for their Educators Day on the Hill. These are also great steps to finding those supports that will help you feel more comfortably engaged.
At the start of my journey, as a UEA Policy Ambassador, I was sure I would not follow through with meeting or having any discussions with my representatives, because I get major anxiety when I am talking to people that I perceive to have more power. However, in my role as the President-Elect of the Utah School Counselor Association (USCA) I was tasked by my President to meet with legislators as your representative. I quickly realized that I was not speaking for me, but channeling the collective voice of our profession. I continue to reach out now, inspired by you, our profession, and our students. Once I realized that our representatives were just people who are inspired to serve and do a great job, I quickly realized that one of those representatives could be me! Today, I am contemplating adding my name as a candidate to fill a vacant seat on our State School Board or running for election in 2022. Thank you for allowing me to represent you and I will continue to look for ways to promote our profession, so that the educational experience of every student in Utah is enhanced by having incredible access to their school counselor.
UEA Policy Ambassador
Kearns High School Counselor
The American School Counselor Association had and AMAZING Professional Development on February 2nd for National School Counselor Week that put a spark in me to advocate more for our profession and thought you would love to watch it too!