Off to Save The Day!
By Meredith Barnett, Amy Buffenbarger, Mary Ellen Flannery, Alain Jehlen, and Will Potter
With the fate of the nation’s students in the balance, you defeat those who would destroy public education and leap over obstacles to learning with a single bound…
You are a superhero.
“We’re all Clark Kents,” says California teacher Julie Palacios. “We don’t go to school in our superhero robes!”
But Palacios is a superhero. She works hard, she cares deeply, and she’s a strong advocate for students. Dawn Wojcik is a superhero from Ohio; the teacher rallied this spring for the rights of the middle class. And there’s Denise Wiggins, the Alabama custodian who just can’t say no to a student in need.
Photo by Patrick Ryan
Here’s the thing about superheroes: The tougher it gets, the taller they stand. Take Shelly Moore, for example.
This spring the National Board Certified Teacher, who has a master’s degree and 13 years in her district, received a pink slip. Then, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker decided to wipe out collective bargaining rights for educators.
Now, Moore is focused on doing everything in her power to be the educator her students need, and to help her state and national Association take a stand. That included testifying to Congress in February against drastic education budget cuts. “What costs more?” Moore asked lawmakers. “Paying to educate our students, or not paying to?”
If these cuts and attacks on workers rights continue, she says, her students at Ellsworth Community High School will receive a radically different education. “No Advanced Placement, no agriculture, and no engineering.” And cutting back on food service and secretarial staff means many friendly faces will be gone.
On the toughest days, Moore thinks of her students, like Jordan, who was on the road to dropping out when she began tutoring him. Now a senior, Jordan has been accepted to college and hopes to become a teacher.
“I hear all the time from classroom teachers who say they don’t like politics,” she says. “But it’s our responsibility to be knowledgeable of the political process and how it affects our jobs and our students.”
Photo by Liss Sterling
Denise Wiggins will tell you that the only super power in her life is God—“it’s not me, it’s all Him,” she says. Still, this school custodian from Huntsville, Alabama, has shared her blessings with hundreds of students.
“I can’t stand for a student to tell me they’re hungry,” she says. “I hear that and I think, ‘Well, okay, I need to find a little part-time job, get a little extra income I can take to the kids.’ ”
Wiggins worked four jobs last year. She had days at school, nights at Wal-Mart (until 5 a.m.!), plus a 12-hour weekend shift at a local hospital. On Sundays, she worked her ministry at Whitesburg Baptist Church. With the extra money she earned, she baked pans of BBQ, stuffed bags of food, bought clothes and school supplies, and even paid rent and utility bills.
“Once you start giving,” Wiggins said, “it’s just an overwhelming feeling.
You could say Bruce Lapham’s superpower is super strength—every day, he pushes students recovering from drug and alcohol addictions to reclaim their education. “They’ve lost their confidence,” he says. “Student motivation is the number one challenge.”
It’s a mission Lapham is glad to take on. A longtime youth organization volunteer, he works with several dozen students at a time through Youth and Shelter Services, coordinating curriculum with Ames High School in Ames, Iowa.
Just believing in them can make a difference, he says.
Julie Palacios is a second-grade bilingual teacher at New Highland Academy, an Oakland, California, elementary school that has pioneered education reform through the state’s $3 billion Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), a union-designed initiative.
With smaller class sizes and more counselors—plus a lot of hard work—Palacios and her colleagues have turned New Highland into “a place that’s safe and welcoming.” With the individual attention that educators like Palacios can provide, students are thriving.
But now, with California poised to cut its education budget and lay off thousands of teachers, Palacios fears it all could be at risk. “More than half of our staff could be laid off. We’re cutting everything—including our counselors, which is the biggest mistake.”
Photo by Robert Hock
When Ohio elected a union-busting goon for its governor, Dawn Wojcik saw its future. “I said then, ‘we’re going to have to be organized. We’re going to have to work together… I don’t know for certain but I think we’re going to have to swarm the Capitol.”
Wojcik was right, of course. A month after taking office, Gov. John Kasich led a partisan effort that successfully gutted a 27-year-old collective bargaining law. And thousands of educators converged on Ohio’s capitol, decrying the attack on Ohio’s middle-class workers.
Wojcik, a language arts teacher at Northmont High School in Clayton, and president of the Western Ohio State Association, said she believes in democracy—but too rarely sees it in action. “We had less than a quarter of the population vote in the governor’s race. If more people were informed and involved, we would have a much better government.”
Photo by John Flavell
Dinah Pike Houston
We have such a good time here, it’s crazy!” says Dinah Houston, a teacher of gifted and talented students at Summit Elementary in Ashland, Kentucky.
That’s especially true on Friday afternoons, when the good times roll and reverberate across Houston’s classroom as students write and practice percussive compositions on their Japanese-style Taiko drums—each the size of the second-graders—donning their black robes and dragon headbands.
Houston incorporates the foundations of math in the Taiko drum club, which is also an incentive, since students must maintain good grades and behavior to have a spot. That stealthy approach to learning, the successful combination of arts and academics, is a natural fit for Houston, a National Board Certified teacher.
“I have to feed the creative side every way I can think of,” she said.
Bill Farmer got a running start at being a classroom superhero. In his very first year of teaching, on the advice of a colleague, he attended the NEA Representative Assembly. Seven years later, he’s now in his second year as president of the Evanston Township High School Teachers Council.
Farmer, who teaches biology and chemistry, uses social media to inform friends, family, and fellow educators who are short on time but eager to keep up with important education news.
Through Facebook, several former students who have become teachers have reconnected with Farmer and expressed their eagerness to be involved in the Association and organize. “That’s what’s most rewarding to me,” Farmer says.
For the last 19 years, Ferguson Elementary secretary Bonnie McMiniment has given back to the same Pennsylvania community where she grew up.
As vice president of the State College Educational Support Personnel Association, she helped organize a food drive that gathered more than 300 pounds of goods. In November, she and her colleagues also assembled “cookie bags” that gave recipients all the ingredients needed to bake holiday cookies—a simple joy that might get skipped in a tight economy.
“It’s the way I was raised,” she says of helping others. “It’s what you’re supposed to do.”
The school Lori Nazareno created from scratch in Denver, Colorado, is one of the first teacher-led public schools in the nation. “We built the school around respect,” Nazareno says. “The collaboration is great and everyone feels empowered with authentic decision-making authority.”
Collaboration, a hallmark of NEA’s positive school transformation project, the Priority Schools Campaign, was also a key ingredient in getting the school running. Over two years, Nazareno worked closely with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and school district to design the Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA.)
Opened in 2009, MSLA offers an integrated program of science, mathematics and technology, and allows students—almost all of them poor and English-learning—to demonstrate achievement through hands-on activities and service projects.
“Girls With Attitude.” That’s the name of the group organized by Community School Outreach Coordinator Martha Calderón to support girls at her Salem, Oregon, middle school.
“Girls were getting in trouble for the way they dressed, talked, and acted—people said they had a bad attitude. I decided to make something positive out of that,” says Calderón.
Now, the 48 girls in her after-school club meet weekly to talk about everything from school uniforms to social justice—and also engage in community activities like feeding the homeless and fighting for school funding.