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They’re All Ears

Listening tour connects retired educators with educators of today

Maria Viñarás of Phoenix retired from teaching more than a decade and a half ago. Last February, she went back. 

But it wasn’t to teach Spanish, as she had for 30 years at Tempe Union High School District. Instead, Viñarás was participating in a listening tour that connected retired educators with educators who are still on the job. The event was co-hosted by the Arizona Education Association (AEA), Tucson Education Association, Mesa Education Association, and Mesa Education Support Personnel Association.

Viñarás, a member of AEA-Retired, joined nearly 30 of her AEA-Retired counterparts in a tour of schools throughout the state. “It was wonderful to have the opportunity to be with educators again, and talk about the issues that matter to them,” Viñarás says. 

And the issues in Arizona are major. The state has been hit hard with misguided education policies. In April, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, passed the state’s largest voucher expansion program. 

The Associated Press reported at the time that the “program allows parents to take between 90 percent and 100 percent of the state money a local public school would receive to pay for private or religious education.” Plus, there are several local issues that negatively impact students, educators, and the teaching profession, such as bad school board policies, state funding cuts, and attempts to dilute the collective bargaining process.

With an administration that has left many educators feeling voiceless, the local and state Associations have used the listening tours to hear what’s on educators’ minds, but to also empower them to withstand attacks, remain in the teaching profession, and get active within their Associations.

The Listening Tours

Julie Horwin is president of AEA-Retired and a long-time organizer. It was her idea to connect retired educators with their active counterparts. “We know from our experience that educators listen to retired educators more than any other group,” she says. 

So Horwin called up AEA leadership, explained how she wanted the retired chapter to work with the state Association, and before long, more than two dozen retired members were walking into school buildings. 

Teams of retired and active members were sent to Mesa and Tucson, where they visited nearly 50 schools, in total, and had more than 500 one-on-one conversations with educators, 200 of whom were education support professionals.  “[They] were excited to see us,” says Faith Risolo, an organizational consultant for AEA, who was involved with the Mesa listening tour. “It was a good way to have longer conversations with people.”

During the visits, retirees shared their experiences with educators—their recollections usually differing from what many Arizona educators face today. The tours were also an opportunity for retirees to share the value of belonging to their local and state Associations, and to identify those who want more leadership roles within the profession.

“For the most part, every conversation included how [active educators] wanted to be involved with something bigger than themselves,” says Horwin, who would share with them how being a member of the Association helped fill that desire.

Horwin taught in Arizona public schools for 30 years. She says many of her peers—who belong to AEA—received professional leadership coaching and training to increase their efficacy in the classroom, and “when the principal would look for leaders, he would come to us,” she says.

“The people I spoke with would tell me, ‘This is exactly what I’ve been looking for,’” recalls Horwin.

And while some educators were new to the education Associations, others have had a long and beneficial history with them.

“It was so great to talk to current educators and explain to them the benefits of belonging to these organizations,” says Viñarás. “It’s more than just professional development and liability insurance. It’s a network of experts who are there to support you throughout your entire profession.”

Viñarás enjoyed the listening tour so much that she’s now a central figure in the Intergenerational Mentor Program for AEA-Retired, which represents 2,400 retirees. 

When the program was over, says Horwin, “Maria came to me and  said, ‘I loved this! I know I told you I would give you this week, but I’m available whenever you need me,.’” says Horwin.

Viñarás believes that one positive connection with an educator can make a big difference. “Some people might need some advice or words of wisdom,” she says. “Retired educators can provide that, and arm those who are going into teaching with the information they need to be successful.” 

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