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New Student Program Chair: Activism is Critical to Everything You Do

NEA Student Program Chair-Elect David Tjaden talks with outgoing Chair Tommie Leaders at the 2012 NEA Annual meeting.

Kevin Lock/NEA

David Tjaden of Iowa recently completed his masters at the University of Iowa in secondary social studies education, but before entering the classroom he has decided to devote his days to organizing student members. Tjaden was elected chair of the NEA Student Program at the 2012 annual meeting. We sat down with Tjaden to talk about the role students and new educators can play in leading the profession.

What do you think are the most pressing issues affecting students and new educators?

I think we need to make sure our policy leaders are always putting the needs of the students above the needs of any financial interest or corporation. We can’t look at a bottom line for what’s best for education, we have to make sure we are always working for the common good and for social justice.

We need to make sure policy leaders understand that public education is a right, and that we provide the best education to all students, not just, as Mitt Romney said recently, those who can afford it.

You are representing 70,000 students who will soon become educators at a time when it seems teacher-bashing has become a national pastime. In the face of this, what is the reason to become a teacher right now?

I think that needs to be the core question that we start every conversation with. Why are we here and why are we fighting for this? We need to make sure we are fighting from this “why.” For our student members, it’s not for the money and not for the glory, because those things aren’t in it right now. But it’s for the opportunity to wake up every single morning and know you have the opportunity to change a student’s life.

Our student members are some of the most altruistic people in the world. I think that’s what drives them; there’s an enthusiasm and an energy there. In the student program, I think we can provide the resources and the organization to let that energy jump out.

What do you think is the role of activism in the student program? And what would you say to student members who join for the professional opportunities but might not be interested in politics?

You can’t just go into your classroom, shut your door, and do what you want to do. Politics plays a crucial role in everything you can do in your classroom and in your school. I think many students interested in education have never been schooled on that. We need to understand that if you are unaware of those things, and you unaware of how those things affect you, you are really not being the best educator you can be.

I imagine a world where every single future educator understands how legislation affects them, and understands what type of legislation is best for their state. So that we can stand together and say we are teachers, this is what we see everyday in the classroom, and this is what’s best for students.

What will be your top priorities as chair of the student program?

One thing I’d like to do is to create a membership committee, so that we can look at how we can better organize our communications within and among the states. That structure is something we need right away.

The other big thing right out of the gate will be the November election. We are kicking off a vote commitment campaign where we are getting student members to commit to vote.

It’s imperative that we re-elect Barack Obama, for this organization and for public education across the country.


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