I am often reminded of the power of advocacy through daily small moments. There are times when I find myself losing hope for true education reform as it feels that instead of learning over time from our mistakes, the system only continues to fail more and more of our students. In the little acts of advocacy, I find inspiration and realize that maybe, just maybe, we CAN do more to provide our students the kind of quality education and experience that they deserve by simply being better champions.
A few weeks ago, I participated as a judge in our district’s annual Spelling Bee. I have had the privilege of serving as Spelling Bee Master and Judge for a few years now, so I always look forward to the day of the event as it is a special moment for us all. Students enter with their support posse consisting of teachers and staff from their respective sites, followed by their parents. Their smiles are always filled with joy, confidence and a pride as they stand front and center, facing their parents, ready to prove their spelling skills. As it happens every year, students are eliminated every round, with the goal of having two students left on the final round. This year, however, something was different. In efforts to mimic the Los Angeles County Regional competition, our staff added a “Challenge Table” which allowed for parents, staff or coaches to submit a “challenge card” when they felt someone was eliminated without proper reason. While we have shared our openness to feedback in the past, this new addition was meant to provide supporters an opportunity to advocate in a more formal way. For the first few rounds, our challenge table was empty. As judges, we thought that meant we were doing a great job so we didn’t question it. It was in the 3rd round that things changed. A student was eliminated for spelling “basin” wrong and instead spelling the word “basic.” As judges, we were focused on the official word so we rung the bell to let the student know she was eliminated. As the student walked out of the competition, I was distracted by how quickly her coach and principal ran to the “Challenge Table” to submit a challenge card. When the card came to us, they explained that the student had indeed spelled out “basic” but that was because the Spelling Master enunciated incorrectly. When she repeated the word, as the rules require, she said “basic” and no one stopped her from spelling it. As judges, we discussed that this was a special case and we needed to reconsider, but before we could even share that we accepted the challenge and had decided to bring her back, the student’s principal approached us with his phone. As it turns out, he had recorded her because he wanted to make sure he had proof of when she won. His confidence in his student was both endearing and admirable. In the video, we clearly saw that she deserved to get back in the competition and decided to give her a second chance.
Fast forward, the competition continued with multiple challenges, some of which were accurate and others which were nice attempts. At the end, we were all taken back by the fact that the student who been unfairly eliminated and brought back thanks to her coach and principal advocacy, ended up WINNING the competition.
As I walked out of the office, I couldn’t help but notice the Spelling Bee winner taking pictures with her family and school staff. Her principal stood right by her side, celebrating her, and reminding her that anything was possible. While that day could have been just another day in the life of this girl, having adults fight for her and be her champion allowed for it to be a special day — the day she became the Spelling Bee Champion is something she will never forget.
Yes, our students need access to more resources, 21st century learning environments, rigorous and engaging curriculum, high-performing teachers and all that a true quality education encompassess. But the truth is, one thing that money can’t buy is what an advocate can do. Students deserve to have champions in their corner, fighting for them when they can’t fight for themselves. If we want to one day reach the goal of providing ALL students access to a quality education, then we need to start by being stronger champions for them today.
P.S. And if you are looking for more inspiration on how to change a student’s life by being their champion, I invite you to watch one of my favorite Ted Talks by Educator Rita Pierson,
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