For the second consecutive year, the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly (RA) was conducted remotely, on June 30-July 3, as many communities across the country continue to struggle with the COVID-19 virus. Unlike 2020 however, when the crisis was still in its early stages, the nearly 8,000 delegates came together for the 2021 RA – the 100th – as the nation is putting the pandemic largely behind it. Despite ongoing uncertainty, the road ahead is clearer and the delegates were able to shift much of their focus and attention to new challenges.
Transforming Public Education
Even a historical crisis couldn’t stop NEA’s 3 million members from doing extraordinary work, said NEA President Becky Pringle in her keynote address on the first day of the RA.
“I was blown away by your courage and creativity and caring. But I wasn’t surprised. It’s who you are,” Pringle said. “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 energy that you tapped into over and over again.”
That energy and commitment has only strengthened and will be needed more than ever. Without a doubt, crises loom as our schools return to in-person learning, but there are also opportunities.
Pringle said it’s up to every educator to imagine a system of shared responsibility where every student is supported, every educator is respected, and every school is a community school. Pringle urged the delegates to ask themselves what they are ready and willing to do to realize this vision.
“I do believe the answer to that last question will be: Whatever it takes,” she said.
Biden: NEA an ‘Indispensable Organization’
Pringle also saluted the tremendous work of NEA members in sending a true friend of public education, Joe Biden, to the White House in 2020. Biden said thanks this year by being only the fourth sitting president to visit the NEA RA, and first since Bill Clinton in 1993. (The other two were Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 and Lyndon Johnson in 1965.)
Joined by First Lady Jill Biden, an educator and longtime NEA member, President Biden thanked all educators for helping guide the country through the COVID crisis and assured the delegates that the American people stood up and took notice. "The entire country has witnessed the dedication and resolve of NEA members.”
Biden vowed that his strong support of public education will continue to be a cornerstone of his presidency.
Quoting the First Lady, Biden said that "any country that out-educates us will out-compete us. “
To transform public education - and therefore the nation - 3 million educators can help lead the way. "The NEA is one of the nation's indispensable organizations,” said Biden.
Indispensable because, as NEA Executive Director Kim Anderson reminded the delegates in her RA address, educators are one of the guardians of democracy.
“Our democracy is the foundation of a society which is supposed to value equal voice, respect for all, and the dignity of spirited, but civil discourse,” Anderson said. “And where do we learn to put those values into action? In our schools and on our campuses….The answer to a weakened democracy is a strong, just system of public education. And it’s our job, as members of this union, to fight for it.”
The stakes couldn't be higher, she added, because the attack on our democracy is happening right before our eyes.
The recently resurgent anti-democratic agenda – fueled by egregious anti-voting laws and corrosive lies about the integrity of our voting system –was the focus of a conversation between President Pringle and renowned voting rights activist and author Stacey Abrams.
As voting rights legislation stalls in Congress, Abrams urged the delegates to prove that inaction has consequences.
“The consequences of silence have not been outweighed by the consequences of action,” Abrams said. “We need every single member of the NEA, every single educator who believes the right to vote should be sacred, to stay on top of this. …That means calling [legislators]every day, reaching out to our communities...If we do that every day this summer, we will see change and we will see progress.”
Honoring the Educators of the Year
Every year, NEA recognizes a person or organization who has significantly contributed to the improvement of American public education. This year, the Friend of Education was awarded to lifelong disability rights activist Judith Heumann.
The RA also honored three of the nation’s most celebrated educators – the National Teacher of the Year, the NEA Education Support Professional of the Year, and the NEA Higher Educator of the Year.
In her remarks, ESP of the year Kimberly Scott-Hayden said education support professionals are essential support professionals.
“Whether or not, we come into direct contact with students, we are part of the public education system that helps to build their success,” she said.
Rio Hondo College Counselor/Professor Julius B. Thomas, the 2021 higher educator of the year, is a proud member of the California community college system.
“Our work unites the academic world with the world of work, which helps to prepare our students to live their dreams and reach their goals,” Thomas said. “I am also grateful to contribute to a system that welcomes a rainbow of student experiences, while also helping to close the school-to-prison pipeline.”
A joyous and just education – that is Juliana Urtubey’s platform as the 2021 national teacher of the year. “By joyous we mean that all students have a deep sense of belonging in their schools,” she told the delegates. “And by just I mean that we are all working collectively to identify areas of inequities and barriers of access that we are working creatively …to make space more accessible, better places to learn, places where education can transform people’s lives.”
Educators of the Year Highlights
Education Justice Front and Center
On the first day of the RA, the delegates quickly addressed the need for collective action on this front by passing New Business Item A, which calls on NEA to create a task force that identifies the criteria for safe, just, and equitable schools.
Eric Brown, a science teacher from Illinois and NEA Executive Committee member, introduced the measure, which will “address the issues that politicians have sought to divide us over.” More importantly, Brown said, it will define what we mean by ‘just, safe, and equitable,’ and it provides the supports our members, locals, and states need to continue to lead on racial justice in spite of those politicians.”
The measure also calls for working with national partners, state and local affiliates, racial justice advocates, allies, and community activists, and engaging in campaigns that advance this critical work.