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In Alabama, Teachers School Lawmakers

LA Johnson NPR

This year there are about fifty, yes fifty, education-related bills in front of Alabama lawmakers.

And many of the people drafting those laws haven't been inside a classroom since they were students themselves.

"People tend to think that they're experts in education because they were educated," says Kira Aaron, an English teacher at Vestavia Hills High School just outside Birmingham. "And so, since they've sat in a classroom, they know what's going on, and how to best tell us what to do."

Turns out a lot of teachers feel that way, not just in this state, but across the country. Alabama's Teacher of the Year Jennifer Brown was at a national conference when an idea struck her.

"The Teacher of the Year from Arizona was talking about inviting legislators into her classroom and what a great experience it had been," Brown says. "And I'd just never thought to do it."

When she got home, she went full-steam ahead on email, Twitter and Facebook, inviting legislators in and encouraging fellow teachers into their classrooms, too.

They turned Brown down at first, but eventually, several took her up on it.

The result: students at Vestavia Hills High lean over lab tables with State Representative Matt Fridy, giving him a refresher on how to balance chemical equations. State Senator Jabo Waggoner, who's been in the legislature for half a century, learns 3-D design, reads The Scarlet Letter, and talks about time in German class. The politicians also hear about the school's challenges — a shortage of special education teachers and kids with little parental support, and its successes — students winning national contests or getting scholarships.

"There's so much that they do that we don't get to have a say in," says tenth-grader Ellen Walton. "So, getting to actually, like, interact with them means a lot."

For teachers though, having a legislator watch you do your job can be intimidating. It's new territory for most politicians, too.

"We don't go where we're not invited, okay," says Waggoner, adding that he's been in countless schools, but not in classrooms. "What we do is go into the principal's office and give them a check. And have our picture made."

He and Fridy claim Jennifer Brown's invitation to see actual teaching was different.

"This is probably the most important thing we do as elected-officials; deal with our school systems and education systems in this state," says Waggoner.

So Jennifer Brown is trying to start a movement to get more lawmakers into classrooms. Waggoner calls his visit an "eye-opener."

"It'll pay off, I promise you," he says to Brown before heading out the door.

"I think it's great. They need to know what we're doing here in order to make policies that are beneficial to our students," says Kira Aaron. "The choices that they make really do have an impact on what we can and can't do."

With all that's at stake, getting legislators into actual classrooms could be key. And if Jennifer Brown has her way, common.

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