By Denise Willmore
I first met State Board Member, Jennifer Graviet when I was a participant in NEA’s Teacher Leadership Initiative in 2014. Jennifer was one of the facilitators of this program and greatly assisted me in developing my leadership skills. I was impressed with her enthusiasm and positive outlook on teachers embracing leadership roles in education. In addition, she talked about her role as an English teacher and her students with great passion. It is no wonder that she was Teacher of the Year in Weber District and Utah State Teacher runner-up in 2012.
I was thrilled to hear that Jennifer was running for the State Board of Education in 2016 and later won the election. I knew that she was bring a strong and thoughtful perspective to the board and also elevate the voice of teachers. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Jennifer and discuss her experience of running for office and how other educators can become more involved in the decision making process.
What prompted you to run for the State Board of Education?
The main thing that prompted me to run for State School Board was being asked. The day before the filing date, the Uniserv director for Weber Education Association called me and wondered if I would be willing to throw my name in. I have always cared deeply about teaching and this profession as a whole. Being so recently involved with the Teacher Leadership Initiative I felt compelled to be more involved in a leadership role, so when I was asked, I said yes.
What have you learned since becoming a member of the State Board of Education?
I have learned so much since becoming a member of the State School Board. I think one of the most important things I have learned is that there are so many wonderful people at the State Office of Education who work so hard on teachers’ behalf. We have a Superintendent who truly cares and who truly listens. This has comforted me because before I was on the Board, the State Office seemed kind of ominous and abstract–people who just want to “make us do things.” However, in the very concrete I have seen so much competence and kindness–people who truly care and are dedicating their lives to education in the state of Utah. That said, I have also learned that so much goes on while teachers are not paying attention.
Teachers are so busy in their classrooms that ofttimes things happen that do not get communicated to us. I have learned that it is so important to go to the source–go to the rule and read those rules for yourself, so that you can act from a place of knowledge and accurate information. Yes, it’s good to trust those who tell you information, but teachers will be most empowered if they go directly to the source. Even when I am no longer on the School Board, I will continue to read rules, go to meeting notes, and look at Board Documents each month to see the topics of discussion that could affect my classroom and this profession I love.
What is the importance of having teacher voice on the State Board of Education?
Teacher voices mean everything–from speaking at Board meetings to emails to being a teacher on the Board. Rules are more than words. Rules are faces of the children we teach. Rules are the faces of teachers that we interact with every day. It’s hard not to personalize rules when you are in the classroom and see the daily realities, effects, and changes. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing what to do with the students who opt out of testing. While those outside the classroom think, “Oh, they can go somewhere else.” Those of us in the classroom know that there is often not another place to send them. Changing the rule so that opt-out students can stay with tested students is a small way to lift a tiny burden for teachers.
How can teachers become more involved in decisions that are made by the State Board of Education?
Teachers can become more involved by paying attention to the discussions in committees. This is one of the most important things I have learned. By the time the proposed rules hit the media, it’s often too late. (Of course, it’s never too late.) The middle school options rule (R277-700), for example, is one that comes to mind. That began in committee in the spring. That is where the discussions took place. By the time people became aware, it was already before the full board. Any time teachers can reach out to committee members or attend those meetings is a very good thing. Often, we hear most from people not in the classroom because perhaps they have the time. Next year, committee meetings will be held in the evenings, and I am hoping this will mean more attendance by teachers whose voices could have a huge impact. Reach out. Pay attention to Board Docs. Navigate the USBE website. Ask your board member for advice. Every voice matters.
What advice do you have for an individual interested in running for office?
My advice for people running for any office is to do it! We need teachers in these positions. That is what will ultimately make the difference for education in the state of Utah. Win or lose, the opportunities will open up for the person running as well as for other teachers. When we see teachers running, it becomes contagious. Knowing that Kathleen Riebe was running for State School Board affected my ultimate decision to run as well. When teachers run, they need to use their powerful volunteer base: teachers, former teachers, and former students. For me, I did a little bit of everything: social media, phone calls, robocalls, emails, mailers, debates, notes, etc. One of the best things I did was attend “Real Women Run.” As someone who had never run for public office, I got a good base attending that meeting. I was worried about raising money, but small donors pull through as well as organizations that care about public education. The Davis Alliance was a huge help for me. I learned that when you ask, people pull through with money or volunteer time or manpower. It was really touching to see all the people who care, but just need to be asked.