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What I Did on My Summer Vacation

A Nationally Board Certified Teacher Helps Tackle Alternative Pay

By Jennifer Holt

Teaching is hard. By the end of the school year I’m always so tired I wonder if I’ll have the energy to do it again. Then, every summer, around the end of July, I start looking forward to the new year. This year I’m even more energized after an internship at the National Education Association (NEA).

Inspired by my last principal, who has spent her summers wearing a variety of hats — including florist, mortician, and truck driver — I decided I wanted to do something that would provide life experiences I could bring back to my school.

In December, I started pulling together my resume and writing my mission statement. My plan was to apply to local businesses for a summer internship. Then, before I even had the chance to send out a single letter, the perfect opportunity presented itself.

I was at the Western Region Leadership training for members of the NEA, where I attended a presentation on alternative forms of compensation -- a hot topic, especially with the Race to the Top Grants pushing for merit pay.

The words “merit pay” conjure a lot of anxious thoughts for educators like myself, and the presentation was excellent. The speakers articulated a lot of concerns we have about using traditional forms of merit pay, but then explained alternative forms of compensation that were more equitable. I was sitting on the edge of my seat. “I love this stuff!” I thought.

 I’ve been a member of our local bargaining activities for five years now. I believe creating systems that professionally compensate teachers are the best starting point for reforming education.

After the presentation, I went up to one of the speakers and told her how much I enjoyed the session, and asked if they happened to have any internships available over the summer at NEA headquarters. Turns out, there was an even better program for Nationally Board Certified Teachers — which I become just this past November.

After sending in writing samples, my resume, and references, I was offered a fellowship with the Collective Bargaining and Member Benefits Department at NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C.. That wasn’t the only good news — that same week I found out I was pregnant. I was on cloud nine! By then it was February.

Most fellows and interns who flock to D.C. for the summer secure housing in January. I’d been offered the fellowship in February. The fact that I wanted a short-term lease (just two months) was a big issue -- many places won’t do summer leases. The other kicker was that I wanted to bring my family along -- many places expressed that they were not child friendly. But undeterred, I kept looking. I looked at everything! I looked at places where I would commute to the city for about an hour each way. I even looked into a shared living arrangement where we would rent out two rooms of a house with a shared kitchen, bath, and living room from a 92-year-old woman who sounded a little bit senile. I was almost to the point of panicking. Then we found it!

A guy on Craig’s list needed to sublet his semi-furnished apartment for literally the exact dates of our stay. According to Google Maps, the apartment was only a 6-minute walk from the NEA building. We had to agree to mail him a month’s rent for deposit that night.

Mind you, a month’s rent for a studio in D.C. is literally over double the mortgage of my house in Kansas! I’d never dealt with anyone on Craig’s List who wasn’t local before, and I’d certainly never sent anyone money before. There were so many ways this could be a scam, but I felt like it was my only option. Luckily for me, providence has a way. The next day, I explained my predicament to a friend at work. She happened to have a friend in D.C. who could go and check out the apartment for me. I call him my DC angel — he told us the apartment checked out.

Three months later, we arrived at what was listed it as a “spacious studio apartment.”  My husband Randy, my four-yearold son Harrison, and me, five months pregnant, squeezed into a not-really-spacious-at-all apartment in Dupont Circle. The kitchen was literally meant for one — it was smaller than my closet at home. Our bed was a mattress on the floor. We bought Harrison a twin size air mattress to put next to ours. The tub had stains, the rug should have been replaced long ago, and the walls were in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint.

We had no cable, pirated Internet through the generosity of our neighbors (also from Kansas!), and phone service only when we took the elevator downstairs and went outside the building. But we had the time of our lives!

I loved the contrast of working in a business environment versus a classroom. Walking to work along city blocks is beautiful. I found the content of my work relevant and engaging.

I spent a lot of time calling NEA folks across the country and talk to them about the various programs going in their community, state, or region. It was fascinating — truly! There are so many incredible people out there working so hard to make education in their communities great. I’d write up the details of their programs and share them with the staff. It reemphasized that education doesn’t have to look the same everywhere to be excellent.

I also spent a fair amount of time reading current literature, studies, blogs, and articles on teacher compensation. I came to NEA with a fairly solid foundation of knowledge, but I left with a great deal more. In addition to reading up on educational theory on salary and collective bargaining, I was able to attend panel discussions and workshops around the city held by other groups working on the same issue. I was struck by how many people are advocating for drastic educational reform ideas who have absolutely no educational experience! Having an actual teacher participate in the conversation seemed rare. At best, there were a couple of token teachers in the room who may have taught for a year or two. It’s very disheartening considering I’ve been in the classroom for eight years, and I still realize how much more time and experience I need to meaningfully contribute to any reform discussion.

After my second year, I’m not sure I had the perspective to offer quality insights into what educational policy and reform should look like. Who are we entrusting our profession to? It’s made me realize the importance of speaking out in favor of education whenever possible. I may not have all the answers, but I can offer my direct classroom experience to any situation.

And now, when I return to the classroom, I can offer my D.C. fellowship experience to my colleagues, and also my students — who might be more interested in my stories about city living than the knowledge gained through my fellowship.

And I’ll have plenty of stories to share. We saw a free concert at the Kennedy Center. We walked the entire length of the mall (let me remind you I’m pregnant and DC is very hot in the summer!). We visited the Jefferson Memorial, saw Ford’s Theatre, the Newseum, and hailed a cab to meet friends for Ethopian food. We discovered the wonder of Zip cars, allowing us to travel to Baltimore to see the aquarium, see the knight show at Medieval Times, and to visit Solomon’s Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

When all was said and done, it was an amazing summer, but it’s good to be back in Kansas. As Dorothy said, there’s no place like home.


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