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Spreading Some Sunshine in Florida

August 27, 2010

By Dennis Van Roekel, NEA President

We’re in the homestretch – Tampa was Thursday, San Antonio and Austin Friday, and then back home. I’ve seen and learned a lot this week. Mostly though, I’ve been inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of our members – even in light of the countless challenges they face. Throughout the week, I’ve been saying that while many view this as a difficult time for public education, I see this as a time that is ripe with opportunities for us to positively shape and impact the future for our students and the nation.

Thursday was mostly about our members. I started out meeting with local presidents from the Tampa Bay area. This short trip doesn’t allow much time to meet directly with members, so I wanted to talk to local leaders to listen to what they are hearing from members.

It is clear that all of our members, regardless of where they work, are being affected by the nation’s economic crisis. The leaders I met also talked a lot about the effect of negative labels on members and students. We talked quite a bit about what happens to a school – its students and staff when a school doesn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The failing label is disheartening to students and staff and it makes for a less than conducive learning environment.

 That’s me doing some radio in Florida -- and, no, they didn’t let me play any music.

I got to spend some one-on-one time with Joe Vitalo who represents Hernando, a small local in Florida. NEA is a large association, made up of many local affiliates with fewer than 100 members. I want to make sure that we understand and represent the concerns of all our affiliates and members.

Meeting with editorial boards for the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times, I talked about NEA’s focus on changing systems. Florida Education Association President Andy Ford and Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association President Jean Clements were with me for the meeting with editorial writers and education reporters at the Tampa Tribune. I told the folks at the Tampa Tribune that I believe strongly that we must impact the system at every level. We can’t do just one thing and expect dramatic change – we must look at systemic changes if we want to make a real difference in the lives of our students and the future of public education in America.

Pinellas President Kim Black and Andy Ford joined me for an afternoon meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. I told members of both editorial boards that as I’ve been crisscrossing the country, I’ve urged NEA members to unleash their passion and creativity. I’ve encouraged them to just “proceed until apprehended.”

Following the editorial board meetings, I went to Hillsborough CTA for an afternoon meeting with members and local administrators. Nearly 100 of them came to meet with me, after a full day of work. We had a lively discussion; the members had great questions and insights about moving public education forward in Tampa Bay. I was very pleased that Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, School Board Chair Susan Valdes, along with five of the seven members of the Board, also took time to come out to hear the concerns of local leaders and members. Their presence demonstrates an interest in what educators have to say about improving public education and an understanding that collaboration is an essential ingredient for success.

Unfortunately, I had to leave Tampa before the session ended to catch a flight to San Antonio. I hated to leave the discussion, but that American flight wasn’t going to wait for me. Friday is the last day of the tour. Staff members traveling with me on this trip have been asking if I’m tired. I have to admit that five states, seven cities, in five days has been exhausting, but it also has been exhilarating and very motivating to meet NEA members and hear about their work in schools and classrooms across the country – their enthusiasm is infectious and energizing. Next and final stops on NEA’s 2010 Back-to-School tour – San Antonio and Austin, Texas. Stay tuned!

Here I am sharing a laugh with FEA President Andy Ford (left) and Hillsborough CTA President Jean Clements (right).