Education Organizers Find Power in Numbers

What happens when you gather educators committed to improving public education, help them brush up on their organizing skills and let them loose in an unfamiliar community?

They contact 550 people, gather 276 pledge cards from community members to support pro-public education candidates and collect commitment cards from 101 educators to get more active in their Association. All of this in just three afternoons during Education Summer 2014, a week-long organizing training provided by the National Education Association Center for Organizing in partnership with Action for the Common Good.

Held this year in Knoxville, Tennessee, Education Summer 2014 continues to build on the success of the first Education Summer last year in New Orleans. More than twice as many organizing interns were selected this year to learn how to build strong local associations with active leaders and members, join together throughout the southern region to move a student-centered, educator-supportive legislative agenda and utilize one on one communication skills to reach out to community members about public education issues.

“It’s important for educators to do work like this because if we build our strength and associations, educators can change the nation,” said April Larkin, a high school math teacher from Jackson, Mississippi.

Tennessee used to be one of two southern states where educators had collective bargaining rights, but those rights were stripped in 2011, despite the fact that students are more successful in states where unionized educators have a seat at the table when working and learning conditions are negotiated.

Since then, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) and its members have successfully fought back a number of corporate-backed education reform efforts: tying test scores to teacher licenses, vouchers, for-profit charters, and a reduction in the number of parents it would take to enact parent trigger.

“All of those bills failed because of the dialogue our members had with their legislators,” said Duran Williams, the assistant executive director for TEA.

But in areas like Knox County, challenges remain with rebuilding a robust member base. That’s why the Knox County Education Association (KCEA) hosted the 90 educators from surrounding Southern states to help get their message out that “Together, Everyone Achieves More.”

TEA members Denise Houdeschell and Connisha Bogard make home visits to get commitment cards from fellow educators to attend the next Knox County Education Association meeting.

“We need people and we all need to be working together,” said Tanya T. Coats, Knox County Education Association president. “We can get more from our legislators, school board and more from our superintendent.”

With time split between classroom-based instruction and in-the-field home visits, the Education Summer 2014 organizing interns examined issues related to toxic testing, class size, autonomy in the classroom and community involvement and engagement. Through guidance from NEA staff and partner community organizers, each participant developed an action plan to achieve positive outcomes on the issues that most impact and strengthen their Association back home.

“My confidence is up; I’m an organizer now,” said Regina Furdge-Chess, a middle school math teacher in Clarksdale, Mississippi. “Education Summer has allowed me to come out of my comfort zone. I’m going to start this movement at home by going door to door to get members and parents more involved.”

While action plans ranged from securing full education funding to building room for younger educators to be involved, one common thread was the need to engage community members in the great public schools vision. With corporate attempts to privatize public schools, it’s more important than ever for educators to reach out and get support from parents and partners like faith-based groups and local businesses to ensure students in each community get the resources they need to succeed.

“The forces we’re up against in terms of changing policy are heavily funded and have lots of resources”, explained Tomas Robles, executive director of Living United and trainer for Education Summer 2014. “Coming together to train and share each other’s vision is how we can build power.”

Education Summer 2014 organizing interns worked on action plans aimed at strengthening their local Associations.

And that power is evident since the Education Summer 2014 organizing interns returned home. In total, they have made more than 1,800 contacts and signed up 179 new members in their first week since leaving Knoxville.

Laura Portorreal returned home so energized, she went door to door in her own Osceola, Florida, neighborhood to recruit potential members for the Osceola County Education Association and signed up a new member right away.

In Caddo Parish, Louisiana, organizing intern Elizabeth Sullivan reached out to several community leaders who were excited about partnering with the Association and willing to help out in the schools.

“I have ideas, but when I’m just one person, it’s hard to go out and organize,” said Denise Houdeschell, an academic coach in Anderson County, Tennessee. “But with NEA and through Education Summer, I now have hundreds of people I can contact and get support from to make my one small voice become thousands of voices.”

Is your NEA local affiliate association interested in brushing up on your organizing skills, developing a community/association partnership, and/or looking to build local capacity? If so, the NEA Center for Organizing is looking for your local. Send your local name and contact information to to be added to a future organizing training.