NEA and Teach Plus Launch Teacher Fellowship Program

The National Education Association and Teach Plus, a national non-profit education advocacy organization, have selected 52 of the country’s highest performing teachers to become the 2013-2104 “Future of the Profession Fellows.”  The fellows were selected not only by their commitment to work with their union rather than apart from it, but also by challenging the union to evolve.

During the year-long fellowship, which kicked off October 11 and 12 at NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., the educators will develop a foundation in education policy, research, and best practices from around the country and will advise the leadership of the NEA on policies they believe will better serve students and retain excellent teachers.

A major shift is taking place in the teaching profession as baby boomers retire and a new generation moves into the ranks – the millennials, who are defining themselves as activists concerned with issues of equity and social justice and are determined to make a difference for all of their students.

For the NEA, the new partnership represents a move to engage more intensively with these younger educators. The fellowship will allow the union and its affiliates to invest in their careers and ensure that their voices and perspectives are represented.

To lead the fellowship, Teach Plus brought in their Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships, Arielle Zurzolo, who served most recently as President of Asociación de Maestros Unidos, the teachers’ union of Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles.

Zurzolo sees the fellowship as a step forward for making the NEA successful in a teaching profession that is undergoing significant changes and challenges.

“As a former teacher and union leader, I’m a huge believer in the power of teachers’ unions to advocate for the teaching profession and be a force for change,” Zurzolo said.  “I want our unions to be successful, and I believe that leading the Future of the Profession Fellowship is the best way for me to support that success. These teacher leaders are proving that being union-involved and advocating for a teaching profession that values performance and constant innovation do not have to be mutually exclusive.”

Over the course of the two-day kick-off workshop, the fellows discussed their vision for the future, answering questions like, what will our impact and legacy be?  How can we try to “change the universe” of teaching in our district, our state, and our union? The fellows will also gain a better understanding of the opportunities within the union to shape the future of the teaching profession and prepare to become more active in their unions.

During the first day of the workshop, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told the fellows about when he first decided to become active in the union back when he was an Arizona math teacher.

“I realized that far too many decisions were being made outside of my classroom that had a direct impact on my students, and I realized I needed a voice,” he said. “But if I left the classroom to speak out, I lost the connection with my kids, which was the reason I was in the profession in the first place. That’s why I joined the union. It was about having a voice while staying in the classroom. It’s about education.”

Collaboration, collective action and professional dialogue are the hallmarks of professionalism, Van Roekel said, and with NEA in all 50 states and 12,000 districts, the union and its members have an opportunity to lead and transform education with student-centered, union-led action.

“Sometimes in our lives we are lucky enough to be around when an opportunity arises that didn’t exist before,” he said. “There’s an opportunity right now in education and we need to be a part of that. We need to build this together. We need to raise teacher voices so that we can be the leaders not only in pedagogy, but in policy and social justice.”

Future of the Profession Fellows come from 14 states, representing schools from Massachusetts to Hawaii. In addition to three meetings over the course of the year in Washington, D.C., they’ll conduct monthly virtual working sessions with their respective working groups.

“I’m looking forward to taking back home the strategies and ideas for engaging my colleagues on union issues that are less about ‘bread and butter’ and more about professionalism,” said fellow Lisa Alva, a National Board Certified teacher from Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles. “I believe raising educator voices on professional issues is key to engaging the silent majority.”