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?

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