WASHINGTON — The following are remarks as prepared for delivery from the keynote address by NEA President Becky Pringle to the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly. The RA is being held virtually out of an abundance of caution as communities across America continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“‘I will not allow the light of my life to be determined by the darkness around me.’
“For 28 years, Sojourner Truth lived as an enslaved woman — as the property of another human. Yet, I have no doubt that this suffragette and abolitionist was guided by a bright light shining from within. She centered herself in her humanity and her purpose — in her truth.
“Sojourner gathered the determination to continue resisting and fighting for what she knew was right. She represents the best of humanity. NEA…so too do you.
“There is nothing I would love more than to be able to look into your eyes and tell you what’s in my very full heart.
“To be in your presence to express the pride and gratitude and power I feel when I think about what you’ve done since March 16, 2020 — the date when we were locked into our COVID corners; when our world was shaken by fear and uncertainty; when we were torn from what we knew about professional practice and how to organize and advocate; how we found community.
“We did what we do as proud professionals, as courageous racial and social justice activists, as strong unionists always do. We allowed our inner light; our purpose and our passion to guide us. We fought through the confusion and chaos, through the echo chamber of vitriolic voices and pompous politicians.
“We found our way back to our purpose. We relied on our imagination and our ingenuity; we leaned into our hopeful spirits and our unwavering determination to design new strategies to connect with our students and our families.
“We created innovative ways to teach and support each other; to collaborate with anyone who could help us meet our babies’ basic needs — decent meals and good healthcare and affordable housing; and to ensure our students continued to learn and to grow and to thrive.
“Even now, I marvel at how you did it all. As a fellow educator, I knew so many of the miracles you made happen were born out of your ability to imagine our possibilities.
“As educators, it’s one of our many superpowers: Imagination. We have the ability to create in our minds’ novel ideas and images, concepts of something that doesn’t yet exist; experiences that have not yet been explored; exciting adventures we haven’t yet had.
“That’s what you did last year. No question. The circumstances were more challenging than most of us have ever experienced in our professional lives. The anxiety, the pain, the exhaustion; they were all real.
“I was blown away by your courage and your creativity and your caring. But I wasn’t surprised. It’s who you are. It’s who we are. We lead and love; teach and learn from a place of deep conviction and powerful purpose. You grounded yourself in that, and it became your reservoir of boundless energy that you tapped into over and over and over again.
“No matter the school I visited or the Zoom meeting I joined, whenever two or more educators were gathered there was light.
“Light is what I saw in the eyes of Lisa Smith, Jessica Nanney and Ashley Ashley Zeberlein — educators I met at Baltimore Highlands Community School just a few weeks ago.
“Along with their colleagues, they were partnering with parents and families, and community organizations to transform student learning and make every student successful by assessing the community’s unique needs, and by harnessing the community’s unique assets.
“Working together, these partners have created programs that boost career and college awareness for their students. They’re helping parents through programs stressing literacy and English fluency.
“They actually reimagined their after-school and summer programs to meet the different needs of their students with a focus on integrating and accelerating academic, and social, and emotional learning.
“And when I asked them what they were doing about their students who weren’t showing up, this is what they said.
“We put together… a diverse group of teachers and parents; social workers and paraprofessionals; administrators and community leaders. They’re all knocking on doors and making calls. We’re providing assistance to families, doing anything and everything we can. Because we’re not going to let any of our kids fall through the cracks.
“We’re better than that!
“As I listened to them describe what they’re doing, I saw the light in the eyes of everyone who plays a role in the success of their students. I saw their smiles beneath their masks.
“Their energy was palpable as they talked about what they had accomplished with their students this year; what new things they had learned from their colleagues.
“They shared their dreams for next year; of welcoming all of their students back to a learning space that was familiar, yet different, because of the things they had first only imagined and now will become real.
“What I saw in Baltimore County is but one sampling of the inspired work being done by NEA members all across this nation. These islands of excellence provide us with the evidence that community schools and labor-management collaboration are the keys to ensuring that when we say every student, we mean every student! That’s why the NEA is investing in, and I will use my bully pulpit and your collective power to fuel our movement to transform public education in this country!
“Experiencing that joy and the light of our members, took me back. It took me way back.
“The year was 1965. ‘Rescue Me’ was at the top of the music charts.
“And I am a 10-year-old teacher forcing my sisters to play school on the front steps of our North Philly row home.
“Fast forward, and the things I imagined standing on those front steps have materialized into reality. I am an eighth-grade science teacher focusing on planning experiential lessons.
“My students are learning about the laws of motion as they bank a shot with a Nerf basketball off the rim hanging from my door.
“I’m coaching my cheerleaders to perfect their routine with precision and pizzazz to Prince belting out, ‘When Doves Cry.’
“Eventually, I began to imagine doing more for my union. From my local presidency to now, throughout my leadership journey, I centered myself in purpose and passion; remained inspired by my students and my members; and my community; and I believed in the possibilities that our collective imaginations and actions could make real.
“What I never imagined…
“Is that we’d be shaken by a worldwide pandemic.
“That I would take office after a virtual RA and accept my new position with a speech given from my living room.
“I never imagined campaigning for the most important presidential election in the history of our country…virtually; or generating a crescendo of honking horns at drive in rallies with Dr. Jill, our (now) First Lady, and fellow NEA member!
“What I didn’t imagine those many years ago was standing before you as president of the largest labor union in this country.
“Of having the honor and the responsibility of harnessing the potential and power of 3 million members, and millions of other allies and supporters.
“I did not imagine we would be here in this critical moment with the opportunity to lead and do the work to create an education system that embraces, prepares, loves, nurtures, nourishes the talent, and the possibilities; and the dreams of 65 million students.
“But here we are.
“We not only made it through a year of fear and loss; anxiety and exhaustion; uncertainty and grief; anger and discouragement.
“We made it through a year where we continued to experience what we love the most; the joy of learning; the sparkle in the eyes of students (even through their Zoom boxes) as they grasped a new concept, or created a beautiful work of art.
“We made it through a year where we collaborated with our colleagues — creating new ways to reach our students. We took care of our neighbors, and friends, and family; we provided a listening ear; a needed meal; a comforting word.
“We didn’t just survive this year. We learned. We grew. We questioned and we answered. We didn’t just make it through. We lifted up our voices and we took action in ways that demonstrated our individual and collective power.
“So our fear became courage. Our anxiety eased its way into calm.
“Our exhaustion revealed resilience. Anger became determination.
“Uncertainty led the way to possibility. Discouragement pointed the way to hope.
“And with that hope came the plausibility of the possible.
“What’s possible is going beyond educator voice to positioning ourselves as education professionals who have the authority, and the power to make the decisions that will transform public education in this country.
“What’s possible is increasing and harnessing the collective power of our union of 3 million members; and 51 state and 14,000 local affiliates; and millions of members in every single congressional district!
“What’s possible is using that power to educate and prepare our students to be the leaders of a just society — one that realizes the espoused values of this country. A society that has wrestled with the sins of its past, and emerged with an understanding that racial and social justice is education justice; that if this society is to survive; if this grand experiment in democracy is to succeed; if the inhabitants of our nation are to prosper, we must continuously do the work to challenge ourselves and others to dismantle the racist interconnected systems, and the economic injustices that have perpetuated systemic inequities. We must bring into existence, systems that foster justice and fairness, and equality, and freedom.
“We’ve done a lot of difficult, inspirational and truly impactful work — from electing President Biden – a true friend of educators and their unions; to voting in a new Senate; to securing historic investments in our schools; to winning court and legislative battles against attacks on our students’ rights to safe and equitable schools, our rights as educators to organize, our right to exist as a union.
“NEA…we have fought for our democracy!
“But we’re not done yet…
“So, in this moment, as we reflect on the obvious challenges and the often hidden, or yet to be discovered opportunities, we must continue to imagine the possibilities. Yes. Take a moment to breathe.
“That you must do. And then…we must get back to work.
“The vision I laid out to guide that work is that we, the NEA will lead a movement that unites not just our members, but the entire nation to reclaim public education as a common good, and then transform it into something it was never designed to be — a racially and socially just and equitable system that prepares every student, every one, to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world; to be those leaders of a just society.
“Our compelling articulation of the kind of shared responsibility it will require to ensure all students, all educators, all schools are excelling, and everyone knows it, must guide the policies, practices, and systems at every level of this government and…at every level of our Association.
“’I like to think of ideas as potential energy. They’re really wonderful, but nothing will happen until we risk putting them into action.’
“Those are the words of one of my heroes, astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison, who told me that her mother, a public-school teacher, always pushed her to first imagine the what, and then plan the how.
“That’s what drove Dr. Jemison to imagine how she could, and then determine how she would become the first Black woman to travel into space.
“And when Dr. Jemison, during a cherished conversation, gave me a glimpse into her world, and told me of her dream of enabling human travel beyond our solar system within the next century, she immediately talked about the how: where she was leading the 100 Year Starship Project, with lots of other brilliant people who are working to make it so.
“I need you to… imagine that system of shared responsibility where…
“Every student is supported in and prepared for their next journey — their next grade; their next level; their career; college; civic responsibility; leadership, so they can…fulfill their full potential as empowered humans, constructive members of their communities, productive participants in our economy, and engaged citizens of not only the United States but this world.”
“I want you to…imagine a system premised on the respect for us as professionals where…
“Every educator is supported in, and continuously prepared for professional excellence throughout their entire career continuum, a profession that fosters collective autonomy, and collaborative practice, advancing and leading our professions with professional authority and professional compensation.
“NEA…Challenge yourselves to imagine the system John Dewey described where, ‘the conception of schools as a social center is born out of our entire democratic movement.’ so…
“Every school is a community school because it is supported by their parents and families; and community businesses and organizations; their local, state, and national governments continuously invest in, and supports them. Every single school reflects the highest aspirations of their communities and contributes to its success.
“So now that you’ve imagined the possibilities, the questions we must ask ourselves are these:
“Number 1. What is the work in making that aspirational vision a reality?
“Number 2. What is your role? What is our responsibility as proud educators, as strong unionists, as courageous racial and social justice leaders ‘to unite our members and this nation to fulfill the promise of public education’? And then finally…NEA
“Number 3. What are you prepared to do?
“I have no doubt that your answer to that question will be: Whatever it takes. If we were all gathered in this space, I know I would hear a thunderous response: We will do…Whatever it takes!
“Because here’s what I know about you, NEA. You won’t be satisfied with only imagining the possibilities. You won’t rest until they become reality.
“You will continue to demand nothing less — of our system, our country, of your union, of …yourselves.
“I’ve seen it in your eyes. I’ve witnessed it in your work. I’ve heard it in your voices. At your very core you believe the words that serve as a preamble to lay the foundation for our NEA Mission:
We, the members of the National Education Association of the United States of America, are the voice of education professionals.
“Our work is fundamental to this nation, and we accept the profound trust that has been placed in us.
“Because you see… We are the NEA.
“We stand in the gaps for our students and lift them up.
“We show up on the front lines organizing and rallying; rising up and resisting.
“We will make sure our kids have what they need, when they need it, while demanding this country live up to its promise to them.
“Using what we now know about the science of learning and development, we will design an equitable learning and assessment system that sees our students as whole humans. All of them.
“In the fullness of their glory and beauty; their talent and creativity; in their resilience and their complexity.
“In all of their magnificence. We will fight for our rights as professionals; demanding the respect and authority that reflects our deep knowledge of our profession; our commitment to continuous learning and professional excellence.
“With fierce passion and resolve we will rise from the chaos and the challenge of a pandemic that threatened to diminish and destroy us.
“With renewed strength and unwavering determination, we will lead through this attack on truth and democracy…we will fight for honesty in education.
“With our persistence and perseverance, we will lead the transformation of public education, of teaching and learning, of our noble professions. NEA, we are not waiting for anyone to rescue us.
“We’ve got this.
“We will never allow any darkness to dim our light. We will stand together in our passion and purpose. We will stand in our power; imagine what’s possible, and then…We will make it so!
“Onward, NEA! Onward!”
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The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators, students preparing to become teachers, healthcare workers, and public employees. Learn more at www.nea.org.