Michelle Palmer, a longtime Houston community activist and education leader, might soon make history as the first openly LGBTQ+ teacher elected to the Texas State Board of Education. But she perhaps stands out more for her platform than her identity. This month, Palmer won the state primary runoff, positioning her as the Democratic candidate for November’s general election. She’s now one step closer to bringing her vision of social change to fruition through advocacy.
“I started fighting for equity in college, and haven’t stopped,” says Palmer. “My campaign is an extension of my decades of advocacy.” For the last six years, Palmer has taught ninth grade World Geography at a public school. She started out teaching eighth grade math at a middle school, pivoting to elementary English after a few years, and then expanding her repertoire even further, as a teacher of five high school social studies courses.
Palmer first entertained pursuing her teaching career while working a retail management job, where she discovered fulfillment in training new employees. Her best friend, a teacher, convinced her to give a shot at teaching. She also credits her college mentors for sparking her passion for education.
“I am the first person to graduate college in my family, and almost had to drop out several times, due to financial issues. Several college professors in the women’s studies department were able to help me find what I needed,” Palmer explains. “They also set me onto my activist route.”
If elected to the Texas State Board of Education, Palmer would influence education policy in major ways—adopting textbooks, approving curricula, devising rules for educator certification, establishing graduation requirements and overseeing the formation of new charter schools. During a four-year term, she would represent one of 15 districts, which together comprise 1,254 school districts, 8,731 schools and more than 5 million public school students.
Keep reading to hear from the candidate herself.
Was there a particular “aha moment” that prompted you to run for the Texas State Board of Education (District 6)?
I decided to run in 2018 when I discovered a number of factual inaccuracies in the eighth grade social studies curriculum. I tried to find someone else to run, but they kept telling me I should run, so …
You are the only teacher-candidate. Did the Board’s underrepresentation of teachers deter or motivate you to run?
A little of both. It motivates me because an active classroom teacher understands the curriculum better than anyone, and it deters me because it is an unpaid position, and I will be continuing to teach and using all of my days off to do this important work.
A fellow educator described you as “grounded and principled.” What values are the cornerstone of your platform?
I would say the values of justice and equity are the cornerstone of my platform. Every student in Texas should be able to see themselves and their forebearers in the curriculum from which they learn. I want to increase U.S. History to three years instead of two, and add more Native American, African American, Mexican American, Asian American and women’s history into the curriculum.
I love that the Board approved both Mexican American and African American studies courses over the last few years. However, they are electives, and the students who most need to learn about the contributions of all of these groups would probably not choose to take these courses. Every student in Texas needs to learn about the contributions of these groups, as well as the horrors afflicted on these groups in our history.
Many people consider the sole purpose of education as preparation for the workforce. Would you agree?
I do not agree. Not every person will go into the workforce (though most will.) We provide a free public education to people who have disabilities that will keep them out of the workforce. Education to me is partially to make people good citizens of the world. Perhaps it is because I am a social studies teacher, but I definitely see part of the reason for education as giving people the decision making skills they need to vote.
In addition, the education system as we know it was created to make good factory workers, and that is no longer a priority in the U.S. We need to create a system that allows for more creative thought because many of the jobs of the near future require it.
How have you built trust with families at your school?
I have always tried to contact every family during the early weeks of the school year, and let them know what we will be learning for the year. I give my cell phone number and email to all parents and students, and keep open lines of communication. In addition, I participate in many after school activities to get to know my students and their families better.
As a leader, what personal qualities will you lean on most during challenging times?
I have always relied on empathy, as much as possible, during challenging times. Understanding why other people are frustrated, and what their priorities are, helps to solve underlying problems.
You are a visionary. What quote best captures the essence of your vision?
“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” –Jonathan Swift