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Building the Next Generation of Teacher Leaders

How active involvement in your association can build your success as a classroom teacher.

By Tim Walker


Illustration: Chad J. Shaffer

Maddie Fennell’s description of the challenges she faced as a first-year classroom teacher will sound familiar to most new educators: “I was drowning,” she recalls, “I needed help, especially with classroom management.”  

Fennell was fortunate—and smart. Prior to becoming a classroom teacher, she chaired the National Education Association’s Student Program. Right after, she went to work for her local and state association. “It was ener­gizing and exciting,” says Fennell, who knew that early involvement in the Association would prove indispensible as her teaching career developed. She was right. The experience led her to a reliable network of educators, and expertise and help when it was time to navigate the classroom management minefield.

 “It was because of my contacts in the Association that I could call and say ‘Help!’ and they came and helped,” says Fennell, who was named Nebraska Teacher of the Year in 2007—the same year she was elected president of the Omaha Education Association.

Now in her 24th year of teaching, Fennell continues to lead. She served as chairperson of the National Education Association’s Commission for Effective Teachers and Teaching, which in 2011 mapped out how NEA could transform the teaching profession and accelerate student learning.

In November, Fennell joined other past and present Student Program chairs at the program’s Connections Conference in San Diego. The occasion also marked the program’s 75th anniversary, providing attendees with an opportunity to celebrate and help current student members understand how active involvement helps their careers and helps the Association remain strong, united, focused, and moving forward.

Colleen Heinz was the Student Program chair from 1986 to 1988. The experience launched her broad involvement at the local, state, and national level. A former vice president of the Colorado Education Association, Heinz believes that today’s endless political attacks against the teaching profession, education funding, and workers’ rights make it imperative that young teachers learn to become “teacher leaders” during the early stages of their careers.

 Explains Heinz, “A teacher leader is someone who has become a real leader in the classroom—confident and professional. You’re also someone who is advocating on behalf of your students and fellow colleagues.” These objectives are not mutually exclusive, she emphasizes, pointing out that being an active Association member and a first-class teacher represents two sides of the same coin.

“Unless you’re an advocate for your students,” Heinz continues, “I don’t think you can be the best educator

you could be. If you meld both worlds, you’ll see the benefits—for you and, most importantly, for your students.”

However, many young educators find that it isn’t easy to transition from student to Association activist to teacher leader while trying to get on secure footing in a demanding profession. In fact, it’s a steep climb. “New teachers are being thrown into the classroom, working 70 hours a week. It’s no wonder that initially the idea of devoting time to the Association may seem daunting,” says David Tjaden, current chair of NEA’s Student Program.

From Association to Classroom: A Straight Line

Tjaden acknowledges that new teachers—in addition to being a bit shackled by time constraints—may also have a basic misunderstanding of the strong connection between advocating for their profession and their union and advocating for students.

“With all the negativity out there about unions,” Tjaden says. “It’s no wonder that millennials may come away with misconceptions about what being active in the Association—be it at the local, state, or national level—really means. It gives you a platform for political involvement, yes, but that platform also gives public school students a voice.”

Renatae Cuffee of Delaware (pictured left) had no interest in political activism but immediately saw how becoming an active Association member would help her become a better classroom teacher. An elementary education major at Delaware State University, Cuffee became a member of her local chapter as a freshman. When she became president of her local chapter, Cuffee contacted the Student Delaware Education Association, which led her to students who were preparing for education careers.  To illustrate how membership could assist them, Cuffee told them her story of how the Association helped while she was juggling a full course load, tutoring part time, and parenting two children.

“Being engaged in the Association provided me with what will be some of the best professional development of my career,” Cuffee says. “The training and the workshops were invaluable. The next step was to become even more involved and learn how to become a voice for my students. It was not possible to separate out advocating for them from how they would perform in the classroom.”

Maddie Fennell also stresses that young teachers need mentors and lasting relationships—the things that helped to bolster her teaching when she needed it. Fennell credits NEA President Dennis Van Roekel for providing her with great mentoring that began when she was a student leader.

“When you start teaching, you’re a very small fish in a big pond. The best thing a new teacher can do is to get in touch with the local Association and establish contacts, find a mentor, and become a part of a cohesive group,” Fennell says. “No young teacher should be an outlier.”

Young Teachers Need to Feel Electrified

As part of the effort to engage young members, NEA and its affiliates are helping leaders leverage the strength of the millennial generation to organize and build power in the Association. “By building partnerships that increase passion for the union in our youngest educators, we hope to develop our next Association leaders and ignite enthusiasm throughout the entire membership,” says Donna Fleming, NEA organizational specialist.

New teachers also want assurances that their voices will be heard and their engagement will be welcomed.

Results from a 2011 survey of members age 30 and younger, conducted by the Arizona Education Association (AEA), shows that this demographic is skeptical about what they have to offer being taken seriously. According to the survey, younger members question whether the state Association is open to new ideas, and whether the technology is up to date—especially social media. Respondents also held the perception that they had never been asked or given an opportunity to hold a leadership position.

Last year, in an effort to fill the gaps for younger educators, AEA created Educators Soaring With Aspiring Goals—a network of enthusiastic young members that is designed to foster personal and professional relationships through community outreach and participation in professional development and political action. “What we found out was that young teachers want to feel electrified,” says Francis Stennis, organizational consulate for the Arizona student program.

The Davis Education Association 

in Utah recently assembled a New Educator Task Force to help connect younger members to community activism. “The Association, at every level, needs to help engage these newer educators in activism—obviously around issues that are directly related to education but also to other issues that this generation cares about,” explains president Don Paver. “We can be an effective and useful avenue to get them involved and stay connected.”

In Iowa, the Des Moines Education Association (DMEA) solicits young members to serve on advisory committees and advise on the bargaining process for an alternative contract for newly minted teachers in the state.

“Young teachers have to be brought into the fold as soon as possible, because otherwise, we allow the distortions and misconceptions about ‘unions’ to take hold,” explains DMEA president, Andrew Rasmussen. “They need to be given a strong voice in the activities of the Association—a sense of ownership. It’s a priority for us to establish professional educator groups, to build and sustain networks which can be tapped into for everything from exchanging lesson plans and mentoring, to political activism.”

“From these groups, we can see who our future teacher leaders are going to be,” says Rasmussen.

And these prospective new leaders should make sure that they are heard. “This is your professional Association,” says Maddie Fennell. “You need to make it clear what you need to be a great teacher and what you need to have a clear and distinctive voice. The Association, the teaching profession and your students need it.”