Teachers change the world, one student at a time. But an educator’s influence can go considerably beyond the classroom. McKay School alumna Wendy Uptain’s recent invitation to the White House shows that individual teachers can also influence education policy, even at a national level.
In March, Uptain attended a round-table discussion at the White House with 12 other honored educators who had been invited to recommend federal education policy improvements to officials from the U.S. Department of Education (ED).
Uptain stressed the value of early childhood education to Peter Cunningham, a policymaker from the ED, and Roberto Rodriguez, education advisor to President Obama. She also encouraged the federal government to support the Early Learning Challenge Fund, which assists states that develop excellent early childhood programs. Since Uptain’s visit to the White House, the Fund has been realized. That the White House solicits educators’ opinions and has acted on them confirms for Uptain that when educators get involved, policymakers “really care about what teachers have to say.”
Uptain, who graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s in early childhood education, taught for four years before pursuing graduate work in education policy at George Washington University. As a new teacher, Uptain found herself delving into the policies and procedures she and her colleagues had to comply with—many of which made little sense. She wanted to be part of the solution and emphasizes that “we need more teachers serving in leadership positions.”
Accordingly, Uptain works tirelessly to engage teachers in policy conversations. As a graduate student, she facilitated the Teacher Ambassador Fellowship Program at the U.S. Department of Education. The program bridges the communication gap between legislators and classroom teachers. Uptain then started a similar program at the nonprofit Hope Street Group. She and the teachers she fellowships advocate for effective teacher evaluation policies.
Although Uptain has pursued her passion for education policy, her roots will always be in the classroom. “Being part of the McKay School got me started in the classroom. That is and always will be my foundation. All of my decisions and recommendations for policy come from my classroom experience and understanding of what is best for children,” she says.
Uptain knows how critical it is for future educators to focus on their students and their classrooms. But she encourages college students to “be aware of the broader conversations” in the policy world. Curiosity about education policy can only lead to better teaching. Sometimes it even leads to the White House.