It's time to hit the campaign trail with Team NEA.
By Mary Ellen Flannery and Cynthia Kopkowski
Tired of having to do the Hokey Pokey to maneuver through your classroom because it's so jammed with students? Worried that with all the rising costs, your health insurance is about to exacerbate your migraines rather than help relieve them? What if an hour a week this summer, or heck, even 30 minutes, could go a long way to alleviating the stresses that come with being a teacher?
Volunteering in the political process can pay tremendous dividends when it comes to the issues that directly affect your professional and personal life. If you think the textbooks your school uses are hopelessly outdated, call voters and explain why you favor a school board candidate who agrees with you. If you can't stomach administering one more No Child Left Behind-mandated practice test at the expense of actual, engaged learning, then knock on a few doors for a congressional candidate who understands the damage the law is doing.
"If you really do want to make a difference for your students, you have to go where the decisions are made," says NEA Vice President Dennis Van Roekel, who often talks with educators about the importance of getting off the political sidelines. That means joining fellow Association members at the phone banks, on door-to-door tours, and on cyberlobbying campaigns that will be springing up in nearly every city and town this summer in advance of the November election. You don't have to go far and you don't need to be a political junkie or trained pollster, just someone who wants to make a difference for students.
"Action, or lack of action, impacts [educators'] ability to have good working conditions, their ability to have sound discipline policies, their ability to have in-service professional development activities," says NEA President Reg Weaver. What happens on your job begins in the council chamber, the school board meeting room, the state house, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House. "Every decision is a political decision," says Weaver. "We should no longer accept people making decisions for us, about us, and without us."
We know finding time to do even a little campaigning can seem daunting, because contrary to popular myth, educators do not all spend the summer lounging poolside. There are second or even third jobs to work and professional development training sessions to attend. But dedicating time to the campaigns of pro-public education can- didates is crucial to improve your and your students' lives.
"I do have hope that things can get better—and that's why I'm so active," says New Mexico second-grade teacher Carolyn Abeyta. "There's so much more out there, in terms of potential leadership, and that's what makes me excited about getting out there and working. I know we do make a difference."
Meet Abeyta and other NEA members who are making a difference, and see why they need you on their team.
Name: Carolyn Abeyta
Hometown: Veguita, New Mexico
Position: Second-grade teacher
"If President Bush could come into my classroom and do what I do for a week ... he'd have such a different view."
Here's what she wants you to know: "Ten years ago, I started out making $22,000. I was fortunate I was married! Otherwise I couldn't have made it. Now I earn $45,000—it's more than doubled in 10 years due to wonderful state legislators. I know our campaign work, phone-banking, letting our members know who will support our education issues, it does make a difference."
Here's what she wants the candidates to know: "No Child Left Behind would be my biggest issue right now. We call it Leave No Child Standing. It's unbelievable the pressure that these kids are under—and the pressure we're under!"And, of course, her new English Language Learners have very specific struggles in meeting the grade-level language demands of NCLB.
How she'll spend her summer: She'll be volunteering to talk up a pro-public education presidential candidate in both English and Spanish language calls, helping to get the Hispanic vote to the polls. And when Abeyta rings, you might as well simply say, "OK. Just give me the candidate's name," because her phone-banking skills are just that good.
Name: Sharla Beverly
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
Position: Second-grade teacher
"The number reason for being politically-active right now is that the people making decisions don't know what's happening in our classrooms."
What she wants you to know: "I'm feeling NCLB big time. We didn't make [Adequate Yearly Progress] and our administration is coming down on us. 'Let's see your lesson plans. What are you doing every 15 minutes?' My urgency is this presidential campaign and getting that changed."
What she wants the candidates to know: "We need ways to prove we're making gains—realistic gains. Obviously, if you're saying that everybody has to be on grade level by 2014…are you kidding me? I have a student, he's a refugee from Africa and he's never even been to school before, and he's supposed to be on grade level?!"
How she'll spend her summer: Beverly, who is unaffiliated with a party, has a long-standing, friendly competition with her younger sister, Janalyn Duersch, a Republican teacher. Who can win more voters for public education? They like to volunteer to phone-bank. "You can just feel the energy," Beverly says. "And my sister is right there next to me!"
Name: Jimmie Tipton
Hometown: Germantown, Ohio
Position: Maintenance electrician
"I'll be doing a little bit of everything this summer. There's nothing I'll be missing out on, because campaigning is important. A lot of people have no idea how important."
How he'll spend the summer: Volunteering for whichever candidate is most genuinely pro-public education. The card-carrying Republican doesn't mind crossing party lines for the best candidate to help public schools. He did it in 2006, campaigning and serving as a precinct captain for Democratic candidate Ted Strickland in his successful bid for the governor's mansion. This summer, Tipton will canvass and phone bank, as well as attend rallies to pass out literature.
How he FIRST got involved: Quite simply, because a campaign worker asked him.
What motivates him to campaign: The impact of NCLB on public schools rankles Tipton. "These are unfunded mandates by the government that cost schools millions of dollars."
What he wants you to know: Volunteering to campaign is crucial. "Especially for the younger educators who haven't been around that long, the way they vote and get involved is going to determine how their jobs play out in the future," says Tipton. "It's all about educating the kids and protecting your jobs."
Name: Tanyce Addison
Hometown: Elgin, Ohio
Position: Middle and high school music teacher
“My whole goal this summer is to campaign because I really love politics.”
How she’ll spend the summer: Volunteering as a canvasser on behalf of school board members, local commissioners, and state legislators. She also plans to volunteer for her preferred presidential candidate.
What got her into politics? 15 million chickens. Seriously. Attempts to build an enormous poultry factory in her county pulled Addison into politics, as she and neighbors banded together to fight the plant. “I realized how important it was to know these people,” says Addison. “Then I realized, ‘I’m fighting for my family and the water and air I breathe, I had better be fighting for education.”
What education issue gets her goose? Vouchers emerge as one of her hot-button issues. “They keep dividing and taking more and more of our money, leaving less for us to work with.”
So what's that have to do with campaigning? “There needs to be a big red alert to everybody that says, ‘This is happening and if we don’t fight for public education and believe in it, nobody else will.’”
Name: Michelle Menard
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nevada
Position: Third-grade teacher
"I really believe that it's our responsibility to create the community that we want to live in."
How she'll spend the summer: Volunteering to ring up those phones and knocking on doors to hand out fliers for her preferred presidential nominee. (In March, she served as a delegate to the Clark County Democratic Convention, after attending her local caucus.)
Why she's getting active: The negatives of NCLB are too much to bear, says Menard. "The hyper-focus on standardized testing, and on reading and math skills to the exclusion of all other content, doesn't really inspire kids to be curious." Menard is insisting that local office candidates prioritize increased education funding before they win her vote or help.
Why she won't miss her usual summer travel to places like Morocco and South America: "We're at a pivotal point now and there are a lot of grave issues we need to address," says Menard. "I would like to know that I did everything I could to make things turn out in a way that's good for this country."
What she wants you to know: You've got to make the connection between your classroom and helping out candidates. "I think sometimes people feel so overwhelmed by the bigness of the [education] issues that they just feel the tide is against them." The feeling that comes from winning one convert to a campaign or issue can be addictive. When canvassing, "it's not about the 90 people who don't listen, it's about the three people who do."
Name: Camille Taylor
Hometown: Bloomington, Illinois
Position: High school guidance counselor
"People are making decisions for me and my fellow co-workers, and if we don't have any input, we'll get what we get."
Here's what she wants you to know: "You have to be at the table if you want anything to happen. As much as I detest the politics of politics, that's the channel that change occurs through— whether it's at the school board level or Congress."
What fires her up: "I'm four years away from retirement, so pension issues are huge for me. I do have a spouse and, if something happened to him, I always thought I'd be eligible for Social Security. Come to find out [because of the Government Pension Offset], I wouldn't be. It's very scary."
What should fire you up, too: "School funding! In 30 years in education, I've been in schools that are 'haves' and schools considered 'have-nots.' The whole issue of your address dictating what kind of resources you have is very unfair."
Her idea of summer fun: The fun really starts when she attends the Democratic National Convention in August in Denver. "I know it'll be exciting," she promises.
Name: John Imrisek
Hometown: Williamsport, Pennsylvania
Position: High school math teacher
"I'm not a big vacation person. I don't like to sit around. Campaigning is my form of relaxation."
How he'll spend the summer: Coordinating the campaign of a state House hopeful in the 19 school districts that comprise the legislative district. Among other duties, Imrisek will go around the district, "kind of like a traveling salesman," putting up posters and offering people yard signs—an easy way for a rookie activist to get involved in his or her own area.
Why he's getting active: His candidate, a Republican, proved to be "a great friend of public education" during his time as mayor, and Imrisek wants to see that continue at the next level.
How he connects campaigning to his job: Imrisek wants to ensure that anyone heading to Pennsylvania's legislature will push for adding teachers into the state employee retirement program. That would at least double the number of employees in the system, and that means monthly health care insurance costs could go down for teachers. "This kind of money is big for teachers," Imrisek says. "If you save this every month for five years it could mean a new car or the start of the education fund for your children."
Name: Brian Westlake
Hometown: Decatur, Georgia
Position: High school economics teacher
"A lot of solutions come from the political process. It's about making sure that the voices of people who are actually in the classroom get heard."
How he'll spend the summer: Soliciting candidates for the school board. That means finding and lobbying good candidates who are savvy about public education. He'll also be volunteering by making phone calls and writing letters supporting the candidates he wants to see elected.
The guitar can wait: "I've been wanting to learn how to play and I won't be doing that" this summer, Westlake says. He also typically takes a vacation to France, where his wife's parents live. But that's out, too. "I don't feel like I'm sacrificing, though, because I feel this is something worthwhile."
Why he's getting active: Westlake is concerned that not enough policymakers pay attention to vocational education, especially for students who aren't interested in going to college. "So many educators understand the importance of this, but often there's a disconnect between the policymakers and the educators." Regardless of the issues, though, Westlake wants his students to recognize the importance of civic engagement. He talks "all the time" with his classes about the importance of being an active participant in political campaigns. "I think we need to be modeling the right behaviors," he says.
Name: Yvonne Bradford
Hometown: Thornton, Colorado
Position: Elementary teacher
"One person doing what she can, joining another person, joining another. That's where we have our strength as teachers, joining together to find a common voice."
Her idea of summer fun: Saturday morning walks with her candidatate for the U.S. House of Representatives plus volunteering to write letters on her behalf. "She's done a lot of really positive things for public education and would be a great person to have in Washington."
Here's what she wants you to know: "You can put somebody in there to help you or you can let somebody get elected who might not. There is a direct correlation between what lands in your lap in the classroom and who lands in the Legislature."
What fires her up: "Our school leadership team would sit around the table and we were always strapped for money. [Lack of funding comes] directly from legislation at the state level. It has so much effect on class size, materials, and, of course, your retirement benefits."
Here's what she wants the candidates to know: "Students are pulled out of art, music, and P.E. for extra reading and math support so that they can score higher on the test. They probably never thought of that when they were passing high-stakes testing laws."