By Andaiye Qaasim, Community Organizer at the League of Education Voters
At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for January: Lynda Collie-Johnson. Read more about Lynda’s experience as an educator and at LEV’s Activist Training last year.
Lynda Collie-Johnson was called to work in the education field. From her first experience in school, as a kindergartner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she knew that she wanted to work in the classroom. What influenced her most was her kindergarten teacher, Ms. Dresden. Lynda notes how Ms. Dresden made every child in the classroom feel unique and special. This was a feeling Lynda cherished a as a child, and a feeling that she wanted to others to experience.
Lynda pursued her undergraduate degree at California State College in California, Pennsylvania. She studied early childhood and elementary school education. During the last year of her undergraduate studies she had another life-changing experience. Lynda enrolled in a mandatory course called “Exceptional Children.”
This course was taught by an African American professor—the first African American teacher she had ever had in her entire school experience. During the class she learned invaluable information about special education and special needs children. “It was like an epiphany or religious experience,” she recalls. The content of the class resonated with something deep inside of her, and she knew she wanted to focus on special education during her career.
After finishing her master’s in education (with a focus on special education) and teaching for 15 years in Pittsburgh, Lynda moved to Seattle, Washington, where she began to work with Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Lynda first started in SPS as a resource teacher, and then started working as a consulting teacher. As a consulting teacher with SPS, her advocacy blossomed.
Having a caseload of anywhere from 13 to 23 schools was a new challenge. Nevertheless, Lynda still made special education and equity the focus of her work. While she was often in the position of training teachers, she said that she mainly leaned toward advocating for the students and their parents. Her role was as a mediator between teachers, school personnel, parents, and students.
Her desire to advocate rose to the surface even more as the only African American consulting teacher in SPS. “This was a huge responsibility,” Lynda says. In one sense, parents of color often trusted her more because they knew she would not allow anyone to circumvent standard policies or practices in a way that could be detrimental to the student involved. In this role, Lynda says, “I was constantly advocating and giving 120% to make sure that the parents and students under my watch were being served as best as they could.” This is still an area of concern for Lynda today. She notes, “We need more training for parents on how to understand and navigate the system. Parents need resources.”
Last January, Lynda attended the League of Education Voters (LEV) Third Annual Activist Training: Access, Equity, & Excellence. This training had a huge impact on Lynda as a professional and as an advocate. Prior to attending the training, she admits that she did not know very much about the League of Education Voters. She says, “What I did know was through the lens of my union.” Unfortunately there seems to be tension between education advocacy groups and teacher unions, Lynda notes.
Lynda attended the training and her viewpoint was changed. She was struck by the professionalism of the presentations, the wide range of topics discussed, useful tips for advocacy, and the collegial networking. The workshop on disproportionality and school discipline had the biggest impact on Lynda. Lynda states, “I was really struck by the presentation on discipline, disproportionality, and the advocacy in the legislature. I liked the idea of people working together collectively and going to the legislature to fight for our kids.”
This month Lynda has been encouraging other advocates to attend the upcoming activist training on Saturday, January 25. She is advising her contacts to attend with an open mind, and look beyond the impressions or preconceived ideas you may have had about certain organizations or issues.
Find fellow like-minded advocates at this year’s training. Join us for LEV’s 4th annual Activist training: Access, Equity, & Excellence, on January 25, 2014.