By Teachers, For Teachers
"You can't run for office in this country unless you're a millionaire or you know a lot of millionaires."
After her sixth grade student made this comment, Tierney Cahill assured her class that anyone can run for office. When they dared her to prove it, she did just that.
With her students managing the campaign, this single mother working three jobs got her name on the ballot, won the Democratic primary with little money and no connections, and inspired her students beyond her wildest expectations.
The book is a real inspiration to those teachers who put the extra effort into make a difference in their students' lives. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tierney Cahill about her campaign experience, her teaching philosophy and her newfound understanding of the American political system.
What was the biggest challenge during your campaign?
Economically, it was always so hard. I worked so hard and it was frustrating. I would think “why is life so unfair?” I did everything you’re supposed to do. I went to college, chose a respectable profession, worked two and three jobs and “we just weren’t making it.”
People say that poverty builds character, but it’s just demoralizing; it’s so easy to fall into a depression. It makes me angry that our teachers have to live like that. It’s a sign of disrespect that you’d make teachers have to get second and third jobs to support themselves and their families. You’d never expect that of doctors or lawyers. Teachers need to be paid appropriately. If that means higher standards, I’m all for it.
Is this the America we teach about in school?
Not at all. There were definitely things I didn’t share with my kids because I didn’t want to discourage them.
What was most discouraging about your campaign experience?
The way the parties anoint people to support and fund and help and alienate others was significantly disturbing to me.
Everyday people should get into it, but I can see why they won’t. If there are people willing to put themselves out there, then they should get the chance. If you don’t, you’re not going to have really quality people running.
It’s a repulsive process at times. Ordinary people can’t plug their noses to it for that long. As teachers, we start every day asking ourselves if what we’re doing is best for the kids. That’s what people in office should be asking: Is what I’m doing best for my country?
How successful was the campaign as a teaching tool?
It shows that children can learn so deeply and richly when you give them that much freedom.
I saw huge progress in emotionally maturity and self-esteem in my students. Three of my students went from LD to de-certified that year, which was a major victory for me to get them out of special ed to fly on their own. They did amazingly well.
This kind of project made them feel valued, relevant, it was really important them, they felt important and they blossomed. Outside the box teaching can truly uplift. There’s no way they could get that experience from just reading the book and answering questions.
With so much pressure on curriculum and standards, I feel like we may be moving backward, cramming factoids down their throats. That not authentic learning and it’s not lighting them up.
If you had won, what would you have done?
I was ready to go. If I was serving at a higher level, I could impact education on the national level, be a friend of education in Washington, impacting not just 60 kids but millions.
How great if it was a mailman and a construction worker, and other real people in government. My dad used to always say it should be a random draw like juries instead of these full-time politicians, many of whom haven’t ever had a real job. I don’t know how much they get me.
People want real people representing them. America is ready for that. In many ways, that’s why people liked Sarah Palin. I may disagree with her on major issues, but she seems normal.
With the state of the economy, people are furious with their legislators. They feel like folks in Washington have no idea what we’re dealing with….It’s unfortunate that it’s become like an island.
I know you’ve taken a few weeks off of school for the book tour to speak to teachers around the country. Do you ever think about leaving teacher to pursue this new avenue as an education speaker?
When I was speaking at a college in Westmont, NC, I was at an economically-depressed school. There were many traditional students, but there was also a group of women in their 30s and 40s going back to school to be teachers. They came up to me after the speech, telling me how hard it has been to work full time, have four kids, and keep up with school.
One woman said to me: “If you could do it, I know I can too.”
Teaching is who I am, my identity, what I’ve dedicated my life to, so it’s hard to give that up. But then I think about the greater good I could do as a speaker. As a teacher, I can reach 60 kids a year, but if I can get teachers to inspire good across the country, isn’t that doing more.
What was the one major lesson you took from your experience?
Never allow others to tell you you’re not good enough to do something. Just live whatever you think your destiny is. There are a lot of negative messages being sent out, but if something is within you, you need to do it.
How will you top this?
I was just trying to do the best I could for my students. Good teachers want to be prepared, want to give them their bests…there are millions out there, so it’s awkward to get this attention. I’m just honored that I’m part of that tribe. I’m certainly not any better, but I’m happy if this attention can bring light to the profession.