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Speak Up!

As critics continue to attack public education and a new election cycle begins, educators need to make their voices heard.

NEA Vice President Dennis Van Roekel has been traveling the country, encouraging NEA members to be politically active and make their voices heard. All that, after the fall elections that helped elect a wave of pro-public education lawmakers.

“It felt good to see people—whether Democrats or Republicans—work hard and get results,” Van Roekel says. “But our work is just beginning.”

NEA Vice President Dennis Van Roekel encourages members to make their voices heard. “The buck does not stop at the door of a legislator with a ballpoint pen,” he says.
Photo: Nick Crettier/NEA

“We have begun the process of working toward a change in course,” he adds. “The task now is to make sure that this shift results in resources for students and respect for education employees.”

There’s often a disconnect between the partisan nature of politics and the tools and resources educators seek for their own classrooms. But with the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) up for reauthorization later in the year (see page 30) and the 2008 presidential campaign poised to jump to the front burner, it’s critical that educators break past that “disconnect,” Van Roekel says.

“We don’t need to be apologetic,” he says. “Civics is part of what we teach, and we believe participation is essential in a democracy.”

All educators need to see “the connection between public policy and public policymakers,” says Van Roekel. “The reality is that every single decision that impacts our schools and us is made by elected politicians. But the buck does not stop at the door of a legislator with a ballpoint pen. We need to be out there in every district, making our voices heard.”

And there, educators play a crucial role. They make up the 10 percent of society called “influentials”—the people who “tell their neighbors what to buy [and] which politicians to support,” according to the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet. Along with teachers, influentials include education support professionals, who tend to be connected to their communities and whose opinions are valued by their friends and neighbors.

Educators’ voices also provide an emotional connection. For instance, their stories about witnessing the effects of NCLB firsthand have already been introduced into congressional testimony and will be a key part of NEA’s ongoing efforts to have the law changed. And the Internet provides new ways to do just that—whether through sharing a personal story on ( or e-mailing your member of Congress via NEA’s Legislative Action Center (

While “the unorganized can’t play,” as David Stockman, the Reagan-era budget guru, once famously said, “we need to be organized,” Van Roekel says. “We need to play.”
But making your voice heard goes beyond politics. It’s part of the everyday discussions educators have with parents, friends, community members, and each other—and it should come from the heart. Looking back to his nearly three decades in the classroom, Van Roekel often asks educators two things: Why did you enter education, and why are you still there? “The answers are where you get your energy and passion,” he says.

“Every single decision that impacts our schools and us is made by elected politicians....We need to be out there in every district, making our voices heard.”
NEA Vice President Dennis Van Roekel

NEA’s mission, vision, and core values, approved by members during the 2006 Representative Assembly, put words to that passion. The vision—a great public school for every student—and the core values—equal opportunity, a just society, democracy, professionalism, partnership, and collective action—are what drive the Association’s mission: To advocate for education professionals and to unite NEA members and the nation to fulfill the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world. But they do far more than that, Van Roekel argues.

“They explain why all of us work so hard in the first place,” he says. “They remind me of why I stayed in teaching for all these years.”

Voicing these basic beliefs can help turn away both criticism and cynicism. “In their day-to-day world, educators get so many negative messages,” Van Roekel says. “This changes the conversation. The more we talk about our values and vision, the more we make them real.”


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