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Get with the Program!

Weekend retreats and online communities keep new teachers in touch with their Association.

As a first-year teacher in Washington, Jessica Upton knew very little about her Association. Faculty at her college had encouraged her to join, but beyond that the organization held little meaning for the beginning teacher.

Then she received an invitation to attend a retreat for Sparks, a Washington Education Association (WEA) program created to connect new teachers with their Association.

“At first it was a free weekend away and a day off of work to hang out and have fun with other teachers,” explains Upton. “But I found out more about the union and how you could advocate on behalf of teachers.”

The experience transformed Upton’s views about the Association. When she returned to her school, she became an Association representative in her building and later chairperson for her local’s political action committee. After five years as an Association leader, she decided to focus on Association work exclusively as a member of the WEA staff.

“The way Sparks programs introduce the union to new members makes sense,” say Upton, now an external partnership and educational issues organizer at WEA. “It’s not that you need to join because you need protection. It’s about exposing new members to the opportunities the Association offers for learning new skills.”

While educators still rely on the Association for traditional services, like bargaining support and due process protections, new and prospective teachers want more professional development resources. And the Association is responding to those demands.

“We have to understand that students are not just looking for the services or products the organization has to offer,” explains Student Program Chairperson Anthony Daniels. “They are looking for substance. What is this organization doing to help me professionally?”

Programs like Sparks have such a dynamic impact because organizers tailor each retreat to the needs and concerns of the participants, explains Lisa Lewison, a WEA UniServ director who has organized several sessions. Since the program’s inception in 1998, more than 2,000 Washington teachers have participated. States such as Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Alaska also offer the program.

“Sparks is an organic way for new teachers to come together to express their questions and have their challenges addressed in an informal setting,” says Lewison. “We focus on making them aware of all the resources available through the union: leadership development, professional development, networking, support. If they don’t know about the union, they don’t know what we have to offer.”

But future teachers don’t have to commit to a weekend getaway to connect with their Association. Thanks to technology, the Association is now just a few mouse clicks away.

Online resources like the NEA Teacher Toolkit and Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM) put curriculum, assessment tools, and professional development resources at teachers’ fingertips. Meanwhile, college students can monitor NEA’s efforts to make college more affordable by visiting pages on Facebook and MySpace.

“If there was ever a good example of strong collective action it is in those online social forums,” explains Don Blake, senior technologist and organizational specialist at NEA. “The notion that I need to collectively work with a group or union still is a foreign concept for some. So we’re taking the idea of one-on-one organizing into a larger online neighborhood, one where the students already are acting collectively.”

In many ways, the online effort builds on the traditional role of unions as social networks. As the Association continues to evolve to meet the needs of the next generation of educators, organizers like Lewison believe the organization may return to that tradition of nurturing both the personal and professional needs of its members.

“In college you had built-in social networks,” explains Lewison. “It can be challenging when you go into a school and it can be isolating. New teachers often go into new communities without family or friends, so the union can be a social outlet too.”


upclose02.jpgTeaching in the 21st Century

Tired of trolling the Internet for teaching resources and lesson plans only to find mounds of information that doesn’t suit your needs? Now you can find thousands of useful materials created specifically for educators all in one online location: the Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM).

The Gateway is a free online portal sponsored by NEA that contains more than 49,000 Internet-based lesson plans, instructional units, and other educational resources. The site contains learning materials from more than 700 federal, state, university, nonprofit, and commercial providers including NASA, PBS, and the National Science Foundation. The site offers lesson plans and classroom activities, tools for student assessment, and even professional development resources.

“It’s the only tool of its kind that has been developed specifically around the ways in which teachers and educational professionals search for educational content,” says Don Blake, senior technologist and organizational specialist in NEA’s Constituent Relations department. “We looked at the Internet, saw there was some value, talked to educators about how we could best use it to access valuable educational resources, and then created GEM.” The Gateway receives 2 million visits every month, Blake adds.

In addition to offering countless helpful learning resources, the Gateway also houses the Achievement Standards Network, which allows educators to access the core academic content standards for every state and select national content groups. Students like Melinda Schneider say the Gateway’s resources already have helped tremendously.

“As a student teacher it is frustrating to do a search through Google or Yahoo and find a site that lists all of these great-looking lesson plans, only to work my way deeper into that site and find that I need to pay for a membership,” says Schneider, a senior at Wayne State College in Nebraska. “GEM provides thousands of ideas that are easy to find and they are all free.”

Want to learn more? Visit and check it out. Be sure to visit the online study guide for the Praxis II Principles of Learning and Teaching test.

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