Friday, December 30, 2011

Dear NEA,

I have a New Year's Resolution for you:  Man-up.

That's what my students would say.  That's much of what your membership seems to be saying. And that's what I implore you to do.

I have been a teacher since 1978 and an NEA member for almost as long.  But the fact of the matter is that, as I improved in my abilities to teach through an association with other professional organizations (the National Writing Project, The National Council of Teachers of English), the NEA became less and less important in my professional life.  I came to think of my membership as an insurance policy: a fall back in case I ever found myself battling against the district that employed me which, it was clear, would treat me like a freelancer and leave me twisting in the legal winds should anything go awry in my teaching life.  (And there are so many things.....)

The NEA has done nothing to change that view over the years.  I hear from my organization almost weekly, but only to excite my interest in an NEA MasterCard, an NEA low-interest loan, an NEA home-owner's insurance policy.  The monthly newsletter NEA Today goes largely unread. Most of the teaching tips or online resources have come to me months before in online communities where my professional development continues.

Ten years ago I shouted at the NEA as I read the Sunday editorials.  It was clear that the "Texas Miracle,"  discredited as a fraud even as the Rod Paige plan was being marketed wholesale to the nation, was going to visit a classroom very dear to me: my classroom.  And so it was.  But where was my 3.5 million teacher-strong union on this plan that flew in the face of all the research we know about motivating, engaging and helping students toward a better life?


So here I am.  Ten years out speaking in a little-ole' backwater blog.  Wish I had the backing of a large education group.

Here's what I know about the union from the ground:

  • We are under attack, and sometimes deservedly so.  We need to lead the reform issue from a moral high ground.  By leap-frogging over our detractors we can create a profession where our clients - the children we teach - are at the center of everything we do. I want what Mark Simon suggests:  "Teacher Unions have a responsibility to advocate not just in the narrow self-interest of their dues paying members, but in the public interest, from a teacher's perspective." (Thanks Steve Owens.)
  • I can't convince young teachers to join.  They don't get it. We are losing them and a whole generation who will not seek teaching as a viable career. In this way, if the union is not destroyed outright by the current "reformers" it will die a slow death of attrition.  And so will teaching.  What will be left in its wake?  A predatory, privatized patchwork of questionable ethics.
  • On the largest issues we are defensive.  Not a good position.  We need to lead.  The more involved in policy I've become the more amazed I am by the alphabet-soup of disparate education associations all speaking similarly on the same issues but undercutting each other's message by being too many, too small.  Pull it together.   We need a single, very large, credible megaphone if we are to combat the billionaire's boys club.  That means leading from effective practice first.  It will raise our collective voice above the fray of profit-making plans.
  • I did two years as a union rep in my building.  Much of what went on in the local was about next year's raise.  We didn't even address the "slave clause" in my contract which describes my work as "anything necessary for the smooth running of the school."  Pretty vague description of teaching and learning.  I wanted to argue for a better definition of my role and practice.

Here is what I mean by Manning UP:

Assume the responsibility for improving education and take on the role of Educator-in-Chief.  We know what conditions are needed for good teaching.  It's time to put our effort, our money, and our mouths where our hearts are: demand what has already been proven best for the children of the next generation by demanding the training, induction, and working conditions that allows good teaching to flourish. Do it on OUR terms, from the position of Effective Teaching, not a corporate manual.  The plan has already been outlined in the Commission report Transforming Teaching.*

Embrace the report.

It has already been heralded as a ray of hope in an education wasteland.

We need to lead. After all, America invented public education.  It's time we  re-invent public education for the 21st Century.  It will mean hard work, embracing change, speaking out about what really works, and even arguing amongst ourselves and conducting ongoing research, but I volunteer to marry my effective teaching chops with your organizational chops to create a robust profession.

Do it.  Or it will continue to be done unto us.

Three and half million people moving in the same direction has to effect some sort of change.

*Disclaimer: I served on the Commission.


  1. Mary what is really powerful both here and in the CETT report: the voice of the rank and file. I've "graduated" from building rep and moved a couple of rungs up the NEA food chain. I really value articulate, thoughtful voices to help me stay grounded in my current roles. Keep hammering away - we need a lot of people delivering this message, consistently, and for a long time.

    Especially, "Embrace the report." !!!!!!

  2. Great piece Mary! I share many of your sentiments.

    And it doesn't help that the NEA is selling us out with their collaboration with TFA.

    Dennis Van Roekel and Wendy Kopp working together on an op-ed piece for USA Today?

    What a betrayal.

  3. If we are the NEA then we need to move to the front of the class and encourage the organization to speak from moral authority. Who knows what kids need? We do. Claim the mountaintop.

  4. You have spoken truth as many of us experience it.

  5. Mary, haven't read all the commission's report yet, but since you were on the commission, I have a question for you..... Why would NEA not embrace a report they commissioned themselves? What is really going on?

  6. vtibbetts - the governing body must agree...NEA is democratic but delegates/leaders must take cues from the members. IF you are NEA and this is the change you want, make sure the leadership knows it. Do we want to be more than just maintainers of the status quo or take ownership and management of the profession? As I said above, either we do it for ourselves or it will continue to be done unto us.