‘You Can’t Be an Educator If You’re Not a Leader’

nea leadership summit

Writer and activist Eric Lieu at the NEA Leadership summit.

Three words describe Carol Stubbs’ experience at the recent NEA National Leadership Summit: “Energetic, exciting, and inspiring,” said the school custodian from Fayetteville, N.C., who serves as her local association president. “It makes me want to go home and do even more!”

More than 2,000 educators, ranging from future teachers to college professors, from school counselors to custodians, attended the three-day summit in Chicago from March 16-19. “You’re not here so we can make a leader out of you,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García told the crowd. “There’s not anybody in this room who has not already demonstrated leadership.”

Summit attendees came to work on further developing the essential skills of union leaders, including advocacy, communication, and organizing skills. (Check out the six core competencies of NEA leadership development.) “What I’m learning is that my voice does matter, and I need to use it. I can’t sit back,” said California school counselor Erika Zamora. “Also, there is power in us doing this work together!”

The annual summit is the largest annual meeting of NEA educators, apart from the legislative NEA Representative Assembly, and it is an opportunity to “learn and to grow and to strengthen, and to gain a renewed sense of purpose and passion and perspective on how to lead more powerful and relevant associations,” NEA Vice President Becky Pringle told attendees. Powerful unions of educators are a necessity these days for public-school students to get what they need to succeed, she said.

With that mission in mind, in small-group sessions across the three days, local union leaders from across the U.S. shared their stories and strategies. From California, they told how to protect Dreamer students; from New Mexico, they shared how to build community schools; from Illinois, they talked about how to effectively register voters who will mark their ballots for pro-public education candidates.

“As educators, we have the gift that nobody else has—and that’s the ability to change hearts and minds. We have that gift,” said Prince George’s County, Md., teacher Arun Puracken, who told attendees he was inspired at last year’s summit to run (and win) a seat on his local school board. “We can all lead in our profession when we allow that educator voice to guide everything we do.”

Many attendees were encouraged by the recent victory in West Virginia, where teachers and education support professionals from every one of the state’s 55 counties walked out in solidarity—and stayed out for nine school days—until state legislators passed a bill giving them a 5 percent salary raise and a commitment to fix their health-insurance issues. West Virginia Education Association Dale Lee told attendees, “Our members said, ‘We are the union bosses!'”

“Look at WV!” said García. “Some of the most under-appreciated, underpaid educators in the country decided they would stand up to powerful people, and those leaders in WV made the case that professional pay is actually important to attracting and keeping quality teachers and support professionals.” And they’re not the only recent example of leadership to inspire. García also pointed to the many women who have recently “stared down their abusers and said ‘times up!'” and to the Florida students who are organizing to keep schools safe from gun violence.

During the summit, many attendees recorded and posted videos of support to the Florida students, saying, “We’re behind you!” or “We love you.” (Check out the videos at nea.org/thankyoustudents.)

The bottom line is: “We are all leaders. You can’t be an educator if you’re not a leader,” said Utah kindergarten teacher Marty Davis, a member of the Utah Education Association Board of Directors. “We need to reach out to every teacher and staff member in our buildings and share our experience, and invite them to be a leader. Everybody has something to offer. We just need to ask.”