“I don’t need to engage policymakers, I just need to figure out how to work around their policies.”

As I reflect on the robust experiences I have had as a U.S. Department of Education (ED) Principal Ambassador Fellow (PAF), I think of how many lost opportunities I had over the years because of my immature analysis and thinking. 

As a teacher and, now, a principal, I have always deeply believed that school-based leadership is the lever for schools and student achievement. What I did not originally understand was how, or even why, I as a leader should find opportunities to engage policymakers.

During a fellowship with America Achieves (2012-2015), I learned how to share my unique experiences as a principal with policymakers. This came in handy after I was selected to become a PAF in November 2013. I was taken aback during my first meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan when he said, “Don’t come here and just agree with me.” He asked that we push him and tell him how it really is.

Secretary Duncan charged us with the task of sharing our personal experiences while simultaneously collecting the narratives of our colleagues and contemporaries from around the country. Secretary Duncan (and his senior staff) sought our honest opinions, and he was brave enough to ask for and hear our authentic experiences. In essence, he wanted to learn of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I deeply appreciated the policymakers at ED who demonstrated their belief that practitioners were fundamental in understanding the complexity of the role of principals. We were not just asked to sit in on meetings; rather, my fellow PAFs—Jill Levine and Rachel Skerritt—and I were frequently sought out to inform decisions, provide feedback, and weigh in on past policies. We supported Secretary Duncan’s outreach efforts through writing blogs, facilitating roundtables, and conducting debriefing sessions with principals. We participated in the Secretary’s yearly bus tour, as well as ED’s senior staff professional development series. 

We gave feedback about speeches and provided additional context about research on the principalship—our work constituted outreach and “inreach.” We received feedback from more than 1,000 principals from around the country and shared their thoughts and ideas with Secretary Duncan and his senior staff. 

One of my favorite experiences during the program included traveling as a part of the United States’ delegation to the International Summit on the Teaching Profession held in Banff, Alberta. The focus of the summit was teacher leadership—a topic I am deeply passionate about. A part of that experience was supporting ED (and other national organizations that were part of the delegation) in its commitments, one being to create a national summit on the teaching profession here in the United States. 

Another life-impacting experience was traveling with Secretary Duncan to Birmingham, AL, where I absorbed the historic role the city played in the national landscape for educational equality and justice. While there, we learned from the University of Alabama&ndashBirmingham’s professors and the city’s teachers and administrators about how they were supporting schools through their robust and successful partnerships. We also met with educators who provided feedback about everything from testing to raising standards to flexibility in spending and autonomy in schools. 

The role of principal leaders in amplifying the voices and experiences of their colleagues cannot be overstated. There are 90,000 public school principals around the country. Our collective voices are crucial to the continued imagination and transformation of all schools in order to accelerate the achievement levels of our nation’s students. As one of my America Achieves colleagues said, “We don’t just sit at the table, we often need to make the table.” 

I strongly encourage my principal colleagues around the country to engage with policymakers early and often. We must take responsibility for championing our role in accelerating our students’ achievement levels and own the space for our voices to be heard. We must speak up readily and sit up eagerly so that our presence is known and felt. The policies that shape the direction of our classrooms and schools, the direction of our communities, and the trajectory of our children must be informed by practitioners. This is not something nice to have. It is an essential imperative without which jeopardizes the progress that has been made in our nation’s schools and threatens the authentic and sustained success of our students. 

Sharif El-Mekki is principal of Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, PA. El-Mekki recently finished serving as one of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s three inaugural Principal Ambassadors, providing principals’ perspectives to the Secretary of Education and his senior Cabinet.