Teacher gets up-close peek at state government
September 4, 2013
During her first seven years as a teacher, Jenai Sheffels had never taught Washington state history before, but staffing changes at Inglewood Middle School shuffled her into the position last year.
Primarily a language arts teacher during her time at Eastlake High School and The Bear Creek School in Redmond, Sheffels admits being a bit baffled by the eighth-grade course curriculum.
“I think in college, everybody focuses on the federal government and how it operates,” Sheffels said. “Teaching Washington state history last year, I realized I don’t know that much about the differences between the two systems. And there turned out to be quite a few.”
Sheffels improved her knowledge base during a five-day trip to Olympia in July. At the annual Legislative Scholar Program, she was immersed in state government procedures – how bills become laws, how elections and initiatives are managed, and key lessons students should learn about representative democracy.
“The Legislative Scholar Program is based on the assumption that, as part of their representational responsibilities, legislatures must inform citizens of how legislative institutions and processes work,” the program’s web page states.
As the 2013-14 school year begins this week, Sheffels is moving into a new teaching position at the Lake Washington district’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math school. She’ll be instructing high-school students instead of eighth-graders, and she’s gained some valuable skills that make her a more versatile educator.
Teachers must apply for the legislative program and can receive up to 30 hours of credit for their work. The state funds the program itself, although teachers are responsible for the costs of travel and lodging while in Olympia.
One of the highlights of the program, Sheffels said, was having lunch with 22nd Legislative District Reps. Chris Reykdahl and Sam Hunt, fellow Lake Washington teacher Mary Kay Weinmeister, and Sheffels’ sister-in-law, who teaches in a small district in eastern Washington. They talked about the funding disparities between districts of different sizes, as well as the McCleary v. Washington decision that has forced the state to increase financial support for basic education.
Sheffels and Weinmeister are invited to return to the state capitol during the 2014 legislative session. Lawmakers had ended their lengthy special session by the time teachers arrived on July 15, but many officials stayed to lead the teachers through the program.
The teachers had time with state Supreme Court Justice Mary Fairhurst, who lectured on the court’s procedures for interpreting laws. They also spent an entire day participating in mock hearings, which were moderated by 19th District Rep. Dean Takko.
“Our topic was school uniforms,” Sheffels said. “I know for me, personally, it made a huge, huge difference in my understanding of how state government works.”
After sharing space inside Eastlake High, the STEM school moved into its own space last winter at 4301 228th Ave. N.E. in Redmond, just outside of the Sammamish city limits.
Sheffels won’t be teaching Washington state history at the STEM school, but she will be leading a unit that focuses on individual responsibility.
“I kind of hope to tie some of that civics education in,” she said.
Those skills are important ones for students, although they’re often overlooked, Sheffels believed.
“Being in high school, these kids will be our voters in the next few years,” she said. “We should make sure they understand what they’re voting for, and how to find and do the research that they might need to make a better decision.”