Inspired by all the great thoughts shared by my Johnston High School colleague Pat Kearney in his blog, coming back from an amazing experience at over the last 9 days at the NEA RA in Orlando, FL, I wanted to embark on a new journey to capture my thoughts and reflections while everything was fresh on my mind.
(Check out the NEA RA Highlights here. Also, as a side note, if you reading this and are not already on Twitter, sign up! Its a great way to easily expand and globalize your educational network. After you sign up, please follow the hashtag #NEARA15 to see all the great work that has happened over the last several days at the NEA RA.)
First, I should describe to people what the National Education Association Representative Assembly is. Many people have heard of the “NEA” and a generally aware of what the NEA is and what it does; however, I would guess that far fewer people are aware that that NEA has an annual meeting or what its purpose is.
I will attempt to capture the process in words the best I can, but it is truly something you have to experience in person to really appreciate. Imagine if you can, gathering several thousands of educators from every state in the country into a single convention hall over several days to engage in dialogue, spirited debate, and take democratic action and advocate on a variety of education and social justice issues.
Sometimes as educators, we allow the scope of our world or bubble to become too confined to our own building, the few teachers around us that we interact with every day, or even just our own classroom. This happens due to no fault of any of us, as this is largely a consequence of the limited time and increased demands placed upon all of us as educators.
That being said, I feel very fortunate to have been able to attend the NEA RA over the last 4 years. Through an experience like the NEA RA, you really are able to see the much larger picture and develop a broader perspective of the picture of the state of education in this country. While sometimes issues that are discussed apply only to a few states (such as the the much-discussed issue at NEA RA related to AFT/NEA merged states having proportional delegate allotment based on dues vs. being one member, one vote), in general, most of the issues discussed transcend all areas of education in this country.
This was also the first RA under new NEA Executive leadership. Unlike some of our politicians (Terry Branstad anyone?), the NEA imposes 6-year term limits on all its leaders. Each term is 3 years long and leaders can only serve two 3-year terms in the same leadership position, per NEA’s constitution and by-laws. In my opinion, this 2-term limit should be the norm across all elected offices, as I feel term limits keep politicians more focused on the issues at hand because they know they have a limited window to accomplish their leadership objectives. It also is a much more sustainable leadership model, as for any organization to thrive, they must have a constant infusion of new ideas and fresh perspectives and be able to flexibly adapt to diverse challenges that emerge and avoid stagnation of leadership.
NEA is led by President Lily Eskelson-Garcia, Vice-President Becky Pringle, and Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss. How many other organizations have three minority women holding the three top-tier positions? But then again, NEA has always been a the forefront of progressive leadership. I learned at RA this year that NEA had African-American members before the Civil War and had a female President before women were allowed to vote.
Sometimes people question where their NEA dues money goes. Again, its really about breaking out of our local bubbles and thinking big picture. This week, the US Congress will be taking action on the reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Reauthorization Act (ESEA), more commonly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This hasn’t occurred in over 14 years! NEA is currently leading a national movement for its over 3 million members to contact their state politicians telling them to #GetESEARight. This is just one of the many issues that NEA is advocating for on behalf of students and schools across the country.
Thinking more locally, as we often need to focus our attention on what is happening with education here in Iowa, we are also in great hands at the Iowa State Education Association. ISEA is under the expert leadership of Executive Director Mary Jane Cobb, Associate Executive Director Randy Richardson, ISEA President Tammy Wawro, Vice-President Mike Beranek, Secretary-Treasurer Tom McLaughlin, and NEA Directors Ray Feuss and Josh Brown. Not only are each of these people very capable and effective leaders, they are also very supportive of aspiring and emerging leaders like myself and countless others across the state. Much of the leadership capacity I have or will build going forward will be largely due to their continuing support, guidance, and advisement.
Every morning, before the RA, we held ISEA Caucus meetings from 7-9 AM, meaning we had to get up no later than 6 AM, during our summer, and were often not home until 8:00 or later at night…so much for summers off!
In our morning ISEA Caucus meetings, we debated and took caucus positions of support, opposition, or no position on each of the 122 New Business Items (NBI’s) brought to the RA Floor, as well as the 18 proposed Resolutions Amendments. Each position we took as a caucus was voted on and our caucus positions were based on a majority vote for or against an NBI. However, on the RA floor, individual ISEA delegates were always empowered and encouraged by Tammy to vote our conscience and for our members back home in Iowa. We didn’t always agree as a body on every issue, and I think that is a good thing. We were deliberative and respectful of diverse points of view and this really is the power of democracy.
If our US Congress and Iowa House, Senate, and Governor could work in the way our ISEA caucus and NEA RA delegates did on the RA floor over the last week, trying to find compromises and common ground on issues of mutual interest, we’d be much further ahead as a country and less divided than we currently are.
In the immortal words of John F. Kennedy:
“So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”
PS: I promise this will get better as I write more! 🙂