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Know the Game

Hi. I’m Richard Obnibene, and I’m the 2008 New York State Teacher of the Year. In over 30 years, I’ve worked in politics by working on local campaigns, by working for LGBT rights, and by working for education issues as a unionist. I have two political strategies to share. The first strategy is to visibly support your legislators. I never want their first impression to be that I’m just another constituent with a long list of wants. Instead, I want their impression to be that I’m a constituent supporting them in office. When I was younger, I would call up and volunteer, either making phone calls or passing petitions or something else at the office needed. Right now that I’m older and make a little more money, I tend to go to their political fundraisers, write a check, and then introduce myself to the legislator. More importantly, I introduced myself to their staff members. Then the next day, I call that staff member and make an appointment and say I’d like to speak to the legislator about these important educational issues. The reality is that for elected officials a financial donation shows support, and I know that writing a fifty or hundred dollar check for fundraiser might be out of the comfort zone for some teachers, but they notice it and and that financial support gets us access that we might not otherwise have. A second strategy is to tailor our message to the particular legislator to whom we are speaking. For instance, if I’m speaking to a Republican, I would lead with issues like, “You know that No Child Left Behind is really federal intrusion into our schools, and I know that you believe in local control and part of the problem we’re having with that bill right now is that the excess of testing is harming our kids.” That federal versus local control really resonates with Republicans and then they hear the rest of the message better. If I’m meeting with the democratic official, I’d start with, “You know that excessive testing is harming our poorest kids in our poorest districts,” and then I’d get into some of the other issues because that’s a message that resonates with Democrats. We call that in teaching differentiated instruction; it works the same in talking to elected officials. If we want to be players in the political sphere, we have to know the game. Supporting our legislators and differentiating our message so that it resonates with them are important strategies to working with elected officials.

David Frank