Despite the unprecedented upheaval, exhaustion, grief and loss of the past 16 months, the nation’s educators are, as always, ready to harness their power for the collective good of the students and communities they serve, National Education Association President Becky Pringle told the delegates to the virtual 2021 Representative Assembly (RA) on Wednesday.
“In this moment, as we reflect on the obvious challenges and the often hidden, or yet to be discovered opportunities, we must imagine the possibilities,” Pringle said.
Everyone must take the necessary time to breathe and regroup but “then we must get back to work.”
The NEA RA is the top decision-making body for the more than 3 million-member NEA and sets Association policy for the coming year.
In the keynote address, Pringle looked ahead to the new school year as the nation - hopefully - puts the pandemic largely behind it. Educators and students interacting in classrooms, hallways and cafeterias in schools that are safe and healthy is a “normal” we can all look forward to. There are others, however – gaping inequities, chronic underfunding, systemic racism, lack of respect for educator voice – that we can and must lead the way in transforming.
"The NEA will lead a movement that unites not just our members, but the nation to reclaim public education as a common good, “ Pringle told the delegates on Wednesday, “and 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."
‘It’s Who You Are’
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the inequities that have since its inception plagued the U.S. education system. Black, Brown, and Indigenous students, and students living in underserved communities feel those inequities the most. If it were not for the herculean efforts of educators that began in March 2020 when the country shut down, the wreckage to our communities would have been even more catastrophic.
Pringle saluted the millions of educators, , who - even in the midst of fighting their own pain and anxiety - led the way in guiding students and their families through 15 months of isolation and uncertainty.
"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." - NEA President Becky Pringle
Educators fought the “confusion and chaos” to design and collaborate on new ways to teach and learn. Food service workers delivered meals to families. School nurses emptied out supply closets and donated everything, including thermometers, gloves, and respirator masks - and volunteered at local hospitals. School counselors spent endless hours tracking down students who had fallen through the cracks.
“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.”
Championing the Community School Model
This commitment and innovation–and the necessary collaboration between labor and management- can be found in countless school districts across the country. In her RA speech, Pringle singled out one shining example: Baltimore Highlands Community School in Baltimore County, MD.
Eighty percent of Highland’s students live below the poverty line. By partnering with community agencies and organizations, Baltimore Highlands educators are meeting the social and emotional and academic needs of their students and keeping them fed and healthy. As the pandemic raged, Baltimore Highlands put together an ambitious, drive-through food distribution program that served more than 250 families a day.
Pringle visited the school in June and was inspired by what she saw and heard.
“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, she recalled.” 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 the things they had first only imagined now become real.”
A school like Baltimore Highlands, Pringle said, proves community schools and labor-management collaboration can and do succeed. “We have the evidence-based solutions that will transform public education. We know what works”
Pringle told the RA delegates that educators, as professionals should have the “authority and power to make decisions that will transform public education.”
This is power that is not limited to the school setting. It must be demonstrated in the streets, legislatures and, of course, in the voting booth. The pandemic undoubtedly disrupted much of this work, but educators persevered, Pringle said, and the results speak for themselves.
“We’ve done a lot of difficult and inspirational and 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 attacking our students’ rights to safe and equitable schools, our rights as educators to organize, our rights as a union to exist,” she told the delegates.
Pringle closed her passionate keynote address by asking every NEA member to imagine a system of shared responsibility where every student is supported, every educator is respected, and every school is a community school. Then, she implored delegates to decide what they will do as individuals to help fulfill that vision.
“I do believe the answer to that last question will be: Whatever it takes,” she said. “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!"
Read Becky's full remarks as prepared and watch below.