Every child deserves to have someone who believes in them—an adult who facilitates their success, demands that they do their best, and ultimately never gives up on them. As an educator, you are well-placed to be that person for your students. Teachers are in a unique position to both identify and understand the individual needs of the students in their care. With this knowledge, they can advocate for their students and the specific needs required in order to thrive.
But how exactly do you do that? What makes a good advocate? These recommendations can help build your confidence in your ability to stand up for your students effectively.
The best way to understand your students is to listen to them. Good advocates use effective listening strategies. Maintain eye contact, give frequent nonverbal feedback, and wait for a pause to ask clarifying questions. Finding out your students’ talents, interests, needs, and goals will give you the important information necessary to advocate for them. It also shows them you care about their well-being and success.
Focus on the student.
Try to see things from your student’s perspective so you can act in their best interest. Remain sensitive to their feelings and do what’s right for them as an individual. Your school might typically use a “pull-out” program for special education, but a “push-in” model might work better for a particular kid.
Dr. Fran Reed, Senior Faculty, Masters of Education programs at Walden University, says that teachers should remember that “advocacy does not have to be a grand gesture. It is the cumulative, small steps that a teacher takes throughout the day to make life and learning optimal for each student. An important part of this process is helping the students to find their own voice so they can self-advocate in the future.”
Know students’ rights.
Familiarize yourself with relevant laws and policies so you have a leg to stand on as you advocate for your students. For instance, are you familiar with the accommodation on your students’ IEPs and 504 plans? Do you know what kind of student speech is protected by the First Amendment? Can you enumerate your school’s anti-bullying and/or harassment policy?
Advocacy does not have to be a grand gesture. It is the cumulative, small steps that a teacher takes throughout the day to make life and learning optimal for each student.
Focus on long-term goals.
Try not to be discouraged by setbacks along the way. Cultivate an attitude of “bouncing back.” Instead of being caught up in the immediate situation, bring yourself back to considering the long-term impact. Dr. Reed explains:
“It is easy to get caught up in the issues students are having in the immediate. But teachers need to take the time to assess any situation and critically reflect on possible advocacy actions to pursue. Often, the near-term problems are simply barriers to long-term goals. Listening and understanding where the student wants to end up, helps teachers to plan and collaborate on how to best help the student.”
Get support from others.
Fostering strong relationships with school leadership and colleagues is an essential component of effective advocacy. You can’t do it all on your own! Recognize that you may need to partner with your principal, parents, the special education team, and community members if you’re going to meet your goals. For example, if you want to get social supports for a student with anxiety, you’ll need the guidance counselor and/or school psychologist on your side.
Take your advocacy to the next level.
Advocating for students doesn’t stop at the schoolyard gates. Sometimes, doing what’s best for our students means stepping out of our comfort zones and engaging the public and other stakeholders. In order to make your students’ stories heard, you may need to elevate them. Write a blog post. Contact your lawmakers.
According to Dr. Reed, “Becoming familiar with and participating in broader community action and support groups provides teachers with a resource base of caring support options to help them with their advocacy efforts for students. In this way, teachers continually serve as the voice for students and bridge the divide between schools and communities.”