My Thoughts on the NEA Empowered Educators Conference

I’m writing from the hills of Northern California, finally allowing myself to relax after a long year.  It is with that spirit that I reflect on the education experience most fresh in my mind: The NEA Empowered Educators Conference, called “Raise Your Hand.” It was a day-long convening on July 3rd, preceding the annual meeting of delegates. NEA invited and footed the bill for teacher leaders all over the country to join in discussing and celebrating educator empowerment. I was there along with a great group of fellow CTQ bloggers, teacherpreneurs, and virtual community organizers, and so a great benefit of the trip was being able to connect with these folks in person and share our work, thoughts, and questions with one another. The conference itself was, I thought, inspiring. The speakers each were excellent, and together they created a powerful representation of the professionals involved in public education. I’m left with some questions about if and how I will get involved myself.

Sticking on my mind was the closing speaker, Alexis Machado, a recent California high school graduate. She told her story of being kicked out of her own home, nearly dropping out of high school, to finding a home and and a new school, where educators helped her reconnect with her education, become a student leader, and proudly finish high school full of hope for her future. It was a wonderful gift to hear her speak, because of how convincingly she demonstrated the importance of the work we do to education “the whole child” in all of our students.

The other stand out speaker for me, personally, was Daniela Robles, who was part of the Mitchell 20 group, featured in the documentary film (of the same name). I have yet to see the film but can say for sure that I will see it this summer after hearing Daniela speak. She explained that, nine years into teaching, she hit a low point at the end of a year when her teaching practice was called into question, and she didn’t know how to speak up for herself. “All I knew was how to retreat,” she said, and she couldn’t keep doing that. She explains that, for her, the action she took in response to this turning point was to apply for National Board Certification, and soon her colleagues and her would work together to collectively move forward in the same professional endeavor.

What was most powerful to hear was Daniela’s candid description of the courage it took to stand up for herself professionally. This is the part of “teacher leadership” that’s often overlooked. It’s easy enough to step up to a formal leadership position designed by a superior, but it takes real courage to assume leadership when it’s not requested from above. The collaboration and growth that Daniela’s courage led to is the change that’s actually needed in our profession and in our schools. What are we doing about that?

I’ve been a teacher for ten years, but I’ve never joined the National Education Association or the America Federation of Teachers. (Evidently, these two largest national organizations of teachers have a partnership.) The reason for this is that I have never understood what membership entails or the role of these organizations; and since there is a cost to join, I would need to feel a stronger pull to part with $400 a year.  Hearing the speakers at this conference, including Denis Van Roekel, Becky Pringle, and Barnett Berry, along with the amazing host Melissa Harris-Perry, made me think maybe the NEA is an organization that can support “the scary” kind of teacher leadership–the kind that brings about positive change for teachers and students. I do know that the NEA has partnered with CTQ and NBPTS on the Teacher Leadership Initiative, in which some of my virtual colleagues here on the Collaboratory are training significant numbers of teacher leaders across the country. (150 this past year, I think.) 

I don’t know for sure yet if I’ll join the NEA, but I can say that I’ll be paying a lot more attention this year.  Suggestions and testimonials welcome.

Are you a member of either NEA or AFT? Why or why not?

Related categories: ,
  • ReneeMoore

    NEA by choice

    I joined NEA before I did my student teaching 25 years ago and never looked back. My director of field experiences actually suggested it to me, but I didn’t need much encouragement. I was raised in Detroit, cut my teeth in the UAW, came from a union family and would never consider working a job as demanding and serious as teaching without making sure I had some type of protection. Through NEA I have professional liability insurance and access to legal assistance by attorneys who actually know school law in our state.

    I live in a right-to-work state, which means collective bargaining is illegal. Teachers here have never had tenure, and it is fairly simple to have one’s teaching license revoked or suspended.  It is a violation of state law for me to have my dues to the NEA paid through payroll deduction, so every month, 9 months a year, I willing pay my membership dues. Although MAE does not have bargaining power, it does have significant political clout in the state, and even teachers who are not members rely on MAE for information on education legislation and respond to its calls to lobby policymakers on various education issues.

    About two years into my career, I was invited to a Emerging Leaders retreat sponsored by the state affliate. The state president, a well-respected veteran Black woman, told me she believed I would go on to make important contributions to our profession!  Later, I became a local chapter secretary; then a local president. At the community college where I now work, there is no local chapter, so I’m an unattached member locally, with no representation at the state or national RA. 

    Here’s some history: When I became a teacher, I was mentored by some outstanding Black teachers, many of whom had come through the old segregated school system here. I learned the history of the American Teachers Association — which was for the Black teachers. It was the expectation among black teachers that you joined “the Association” as they called it. I also learned that these teachers and their organizations played a very important role (often covertly) in the struggle for civil rights. When NEA and ATA merged at the national level, the Mississippi chapter of NEA was actually suspended for a year because they refused to accept the black teachers at the state level. When the merger finally happened, many of the white teachers left NEA/MAE to form the Mississippi Professional Educators (MPE). That pattern occurred in other Deep South states as well.

    AFT has very limited presence in Miss., mostly along the coast near the counties with shipyards, no affliates here in the Delta.

  • Windy

    Voice for teachers

    I joined NEA when I was an undergraduate in 2002 and have kept it throughout my career. I joined because I wanted to help fund the professional organization for educators. The advocacy work they do for students, teachers, and public education is critically important. The negotiating power of the NEA is strengthened by membership.  Someday I hope to develop my voice and become more involved, maybe through the TLI.

    I’ve also heard Daniela Robles speak. Her story is awesome and inspiring! 

  • RodPowell

    Same here in NC

    Renee and Ariel, 

    My situation is the same here in NC.  The laws in NC seem to mirror those in MS.

    I wonder what kind of impact a teacher’s union in NC would have on our educational and poitical climate?

    I am a member of NEA and it’s NC offshoot, NCAE.  Most of the politicians here in NC complain about the union influence of the NCAE, not remembering that we are a right to work state.  Maybe they are pandering to union fears of their conservative constituents as the rail against NCAE’s activities.

    I’ve joined NCAE for that sense of representation.  I know that I can have our local NCAE rep. (that does sound union, doesn’t it?) present in any meeting that I have with a administration as a witness to the proceedings.  Not much protection there.  But they are a force in NC politics recently with Moral Monday protests.

  • sharonwright

    NEA & AEA

    Ariel —

    First let me say that I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts, and this one is no different. I teach in Alabama, which is overwhelmingly conservative and what Rod mentioned in his post about politicians “pandering to union fears of their conservative constituents” stands true in my state, also. It’s ridiculous, but sadly true. I also serve as a local school rep. for our association, AEA. Mostly I just help our district rep. pass out voting ballots and helpful information, but occasionally I field questions from my fellow teachers about rights/fairness, etc. This is when I get scared. I have found too many teachers that don’t know what is expected of them legally. That’s where NEA/AEA comes in. They can help answer those questions, but they also help teachers by representing their interests and concerns at the state and national levels.

    My husband is also a teacher & coach, and unfortunately he has had to use the AEA legal team before when he was seriously harrassed by his principal who had a personal issue with him. It was frightening — this is how we provide for our own children after all; however, our AEA rep. and the legal team was  a tremendous help and the issue was finally resolved. If I hadn’t already been a beleiver in NEA/AEA, that would have definitely turned the tide for me.

    Echoing Renee: There is no way I would do this crucial and sensitive business of teaching our next generation of leaders without NEA/AEA having my back.

    Thank you for your question AND all your excellent posts!

  • Michael Dunlea

    I’ve been a paying member of the NEA for 10 years but until Raise Your Hand I never felt a part of this organization. I am proudly embracing it as an example of how unions, despite what many will decry, are part of the solution to making American Public Education equitable for all students. The NEA is working collaboratively with many other entities to come up with innovative ways to meet the needs of our students. They are also helpong safeguard the profession from those who would stand to benefit from its dismantling. After leaving Denver I am optimistic that our profession and the children in our care will prosper.

  • ArielSacks

    NEA in Union States?

    Renee, thank you for sharing the history of the American Teachers Association and Missippi’s NEA chapter. Our profession, like most things in this country, includes racism in its history–and we don’t have to look back far to find overt examples of it. Knowing this history makes it feel even more hurtful that some of today’s socalled “reforms” are serving to marginalize black teachers.

    Thank you all for explaining some of your involvement with the NEA. It definitely helps me understand what a national union is for and can do. I notice that you are all working in right-to -work states. As a New Yorker (originally from Massachusetts), I wonder what the role/benefit of the NEA is in strong union states. Can anyone comment? 



  • ArielSacks


    I have since put a few things together, a lot of this, I have to admit, through following twitter and facebook feeds, more than real research. The NYC teacher’s union–UFT–is an affiliate of the AFT. The same is true for the Chicago teacher’s union. Is this a north-south thing? Still wondering if many New York teachers are also members of the NEA. 

    At the NEA delegates meeting, which followed the Raise Your Hand meeting, the NEA voted in anumber of resolutions, including one to call for the resignation of Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. The AFT is now holding its annual meeting in LA, and will vote on the same resolution. There is talk here that NYC-UFT Unity Caucus (majority “party” within the NYC union, which seems to be able to sway many NYC teachers to vote in one direction or another) will vote no on that resolution, which will likely lead to AFT voting against calling for Duncan’s resignation, even though Chicago teachers union is likely to vote yes. What does it mean?  

    If AFT voted yes, is it even in the realm of possibility that such a resolution would move Secretary Duncan to resign?  Does he consider himself to be anti-union? If so, does he see this as a bad thing or a good thing?  Do these organizations have sway with the public? With the voting power of teachers across America? Obama and Duncan will not run again, so would the burden be on the Democractic party to respond?