Empowered Educators Raise Their Hands for Student Success

More than 1,000 innovative, empowered educators put their heads and hearts together during NEA’s “Raise Your Hand: Empowered Educators Day” on Wednesday, sharing the awesome and inspiring ways they use their power to make a difference for every child in the nation.

“Every one of you is a leader. Every one of you is using your power and expertise for students,” said Bill Raabe, director of NEA Center for Great Public Schools, to the crowded theater in Denver’s Colorado Convention Center. “This day is about helping you to do that work.”

Co-sponsored by the GE Foundation and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and co-hosted by professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, the events of Empowered Educators Day typify the work that NEA and its members have undertaken to lead their profession and focus on the success of students. (You can join these efforts by taking part in the NEA Great Public Schools Network at gpsnetwork.org, a gathering place for teachers, parents, and education support professionals to share ideas and resources.)

“Proceed until apprehended!” exhorted NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. While he has said those three words hundreds of times before, they seemed especially applicable in a room packed with educators working on issues of teacher leadership, community collaboration, and student success. Now is the time, Van Roekel said, for educators to make sure that public schools remain an “essential element of our future,” and that “we can’t deprofessionalize the people who deliver it.”

The day began with a panel dedicated to the development of leadership. “Always ask yourself, ‘Is this good for students?’” advised Iowa State Education Association President Tammy Wawro. (The panel discussion is archived online: http://www.gpsnetwork.org/welcome/ra2014/2014-nea-ra-live-stream-video-archive/) And it continued through numerous showcases of the outstanding work being done by NEA members, their local and state unions, and their allies.

In Milwaukee, for example, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Association Education (MTEA) has taken charge of members’ professional development through a member-led center of teaching and learning. MTEA has also negotiated with the district to ensure every new teacher has an experienced mentor teacher, and that struggling teachers spend time with master teachers, released from their classroom duties to spend time on teacher development. “We don’t want our children in schools that are ineffective,” said MTEA President Bob Peterson.

The empowered educators shared stories of success: “This is a story of bargaining in a community-based, innovative manner to win student-centric victories like smaller class size, more support staff for whole-child services, less testing and more time to teach,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Her union, she told participants, has envisioned itself like a “fitness center.” If members want to see results, they understand they need to participate, too.

And they also talked about how to build an effective career trajectory within the teaching profession—from pre-service to novice to master teacher or teacher leader; how to identify leaders and engage activists, as the Seattle Education Association has done; and how to work collaboratively with parents and other local groups. “Teachers have to take on the responsibility of reaching out to communities,” said Peterson.

The empowered educators also heard from four TED-style speakers, including Paula Monroe, NEA Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year, who issued a call to action to her colleagues to “acknowledge and respect each other” as teammates. “None of you are now, nor have you ever been, ‘just’ a teacher or ‘just’ an education support professional,” she said. Attendees also heard from Daniela Robles, a nationally board certified teacher from Arizona who helped lead 20 of her colleagues in the national board process.

“Together, we are a force to be reckoned with,” Robles promised the crowd. “Advancing our profession together means it takes a greater force to knock us down—but the real power is in how quickly we get back up, because of all the hands pulling us up.”

As the audience cheered, Robles told them: “Recognize the power of your voice.”