Educators Say Enough is Enough, Let’s Organize!
By Amy Jordan
What can you do when you feel like high-stakes testing is ruining education for your students?
What can you do when you feel like your voice as an educator isn’t being heard by those responsible for making all the decisions about public education?
The answer is ORGANIZE!
That’s what 40 educators from seven states learned over four days in New Orleans during Education Summer, a three week organizing internship program designed to teach organizing skills through classroom-based instruction and in-the-field practicums to educators eager to get others more active in their Association.
“What is happening here is wonderful,” said Emily Moore, a high school English and theater teacher in West Virginia. “Educators can really learn how to be activists and become active leaders.”
Education Summer was conceived by the National Education Association (NEA) Center for Organizing. The internship program was then developed and administered by NEA in partnership with the Leadership Center for the Common Good. Locals from NEA’s Multi-State Organizing Project – Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Virginia – joined counterparts from New Jersey, Florida, and Arizona to learn why it’s so important for NEA and affiliates to boost organizing efforts.
Video: NEA’s Education Summer
“There’s been a very slow and deliberate takeover by private interests to discredit public education and discredit teachers and support professionals and divide our communities,” explained Jo Ellen Chernow, Director of Organizing for the Leadership Center for the Common Good. “If we’re going to have any sort of impact and if we’re ever going to be able to take it back we need to take some very strong measures.”
To practice what they were learning in “class,” the education organizers spent their afternoons doing home visits in St. Bernard Parish to help the St. Bernard Association of Educators raise awareness about their union.
Located right outside New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish was devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Every home was affected, families had to move away and the district went from having 17 schools to just one right after the storm, leaving educators without jobs.
Rebuilding in St. Bernard starts with the schools. “We’re building families again through our school system,” said Jessica Janneck, a high school social studies teacher in St. Bernard Parish, parent of kids in the school district and an involved St. Bernard Parish community member. “We are known for having a solid system and foundation, and I think a lot of that comes from the work the association has done in the past to maintain that level of integrity with the profession in our parish.”
Now there are 11 public schools open in St. Bernard Parish. With those new schools are new educators, two-thirds of whom have fewer than 5 years of experience. Also, new phone numbers, email and home addresses that the St. Bernard Association of Educators (SBAE) doesn’t have yet.
To help, the Education Summer interns visited nearly 500 houses to engage education professionals, listen to the issues they are facing and talk about how the Association can help. They signed up new members, recruited current SBAE members to do things like make phone calls or attend more Association meetings, and collected contact information of community members who pledged to support their public schools.
For Chelsy Taylor and Lynda Rost, the biggest excitement of the week was signing up a new member for SBAE, a bus driver who didn’t know that the union had reformed after Hurricane Katrina. “She said she was itching to join again and that she wants all of her bus driver friends to join. She was going to get everybody in with us,” said Rost, a high school math teacher in St. Bernard Parish.
The work wasn’t easy and took a lot of people out of their comfort zones. It can be intimidating for one new to organizing, to knock on a stranger’s door to talk to them about the Association. So why did these 40 educators volunteer to do it?
“We need to be at the ground level doing everything we can and not just for other teachers and not just for students, but for everyone who is a member of the community that we work in,” explained Eden Lewkowitz, a middle school science teacher in Arizona. “If just teachers are talking, we’re really not going to get it done. It has to be teachers and everyone else.”
And after a few doors, the work got easier.
“When I got here, I never thought I could go door-to-door and talk about my union,” said Charlotte Wade, an educator in Mississippi. “But look at me now—I realize I can do anything!”
The work didn’t end in New Orleans for the newly-minted education organizers. After creating action plans to grow and strengthen their own local associations, Education Summer participants are now home moving their “Raise Your Hand” education justice campaigns, and pulling out all the stops to promote and protect public education.
“The passion our members have here is just breathtaking,” said Barbara Sanders, a middle school chorus teacher in Mississippi. “I hope to take all that back and help our new members and our old members to be fired up about the things we do.”