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Feature Article

Educators Embrace Their Role as Advocates for Students, Defenders of Freedom

Delegates rallied for the Freedom to Learn, applauded a passionate Teacher of the Year, and learned more about community schools on day three of the RA.
Educators hold Freedom to Teach signs at rally in Orlando

Key Takeaways

  1. The energetic third day of the RA in Orlando began with thousands of educators rallying for the Freedom to Learn outside of the convention center.
  2. National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson celebrated the role of educators in students' lives and in ensuring our freedoms.
  3. NEA President Becky Pringle hosted a panel on community schools, an initiative spearheaded by NEA to help fulfill the unmet student and family needs that stand in the way of student learning.

An energetic third day at the Representative Assembly (RA) challenged educators to stay in the fight for the freedom to learn, the freedom to teach, and the freedom to love. There were also inspiring moments of celebration of the many ways that educators advocate for their students.

The tone was set when thousands of educators braved the morning heat to rally outside the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, calling for an end to attacks on students. At the Freedom to Learn rally, NEA educators aimed to send a clear message to Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis and other politicians who are banning books, silencing educators, and taking away the freedom to learn from students. 

NEA President Becky Pringle, as she stood on the rally stage, looking across the crowd of thousands, from states around the nation, waving signs and rainbow flags. “You are showing what it means to fight against out-of-touch politicians like Ron DeSantis.”

In just the past year, politicians like DeSantis have recklessly banned books about Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank, attempted to erase and dehumanize the LGBTQ+ community, blocked students from learning AP African American Studies and restricted the freedom of educators to teach and of students to learn. Meanwhile, they fail to address the real problems that students face, including gun violence and a shortage of educators. 

“We will show this governor, and other dictators, that they can’t take us back to the 1950s!” promised Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar, to the roaring crowd. “We will move forward!”

The Power of a Great Teacher

National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson
National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson

In a manner much quieter but just as passionate, National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson reminded delegates what a profound impact every educator has on the lives of our students. That includes everyone in the school, from the bus driver who greets students in the morning to the cafeteria workers who keep them full, to the teachers, paraprofessionals, and specialists who help them realize their potential.

“Every day, as we unlock the doors of our classrooms, we swing wide the doors of opportunity. Each time we open a book, we open a space to grow. We pick up the pieces of broken pencils one moment, and pieces of broken hearts in the next,” Peterson said, recognizing the many hats that educators must wear to help students through each and every school day.

She emphasized that educators also must keep fighting for our democracy.

“As an Iranian-American woman, I stand acutely aware that liberty for us all is no guarantee. Rather, it’s a product of a nation’s people insisting: We belong to each other. Teachers, you are the ones carrying that banner.”

Peterson’s grace and determination drew rounds of applause throughout her remarks.

As the 2022 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, Peterson traveled around the state, meeting with other teachers, finding the great things about their practice, and posting them to her social media accounts as part of the Teachers of Oklahoma project.

Community Schools Panelists Share Strategies for Success

In 2018, RA delegates passed a policy statement recognizing community schools' power, potential, and possibility.  

Since then, NEA has spearheaded the community schools movement, launching the Community Schools Institute with a $10 million investment to help communities start and grow community schools. Thanks to NEA member advocacy, the federal government now provides $70 million in federal funding to support community school initiatives. 

To talk about the progress and success of those programs, NEA President Becky Pringle hosted a panel discussion with community school leaders from around the country today. 

NEA President Becky Pringle hosted a panel on community schools
NEA President Becky Pringle hosted a panel on community schools

As Pringle said, “it is part of my master plan to make every public school a community school!”

Among the panelists was Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles, which has been leading the way in community schools implementation.

“When we took office in 2014, our schools had been decimated through mass privatization and decades of disinvestments. The time was ripe for a grassroots movement to energize and captivate the entire educational community. We needed a place of hope within and outside of our schools, which brings in the community schools model,” she said.

“This model is for every school community--rural, urban, suburban, and every community in between. It is the antidote to privatization.”

Panelists also spoke about how community schools meet the needs of the whole child. More and more students are coming to school hungry, many face unstable housing situations or move frequently, and many do not have access to regular pediatric well-visits.  

Nikki Woodward, vice president of the Montgomery County Education Association, told the delegates about Georgian Forest Elementary, in Silver Spring, Maryland, which became a community school in the 2021-22 school year, after being virtual for more than half the year.  

“We knew we didn’t have the answers. In the initial year, our team engaged in a deep canvassing and assessment process that included parents, employees across all three unions, and student voices,” she said. “We also talked to community partners working in an apartment complex where nearly 80 percent of the students live.” 

To build trust, the school staff met with families in the apartment complex. From these conversations, they have collectively established several programs, including a food pantry that serves over 554 families, diaper distribution, and a community laundry facility. 

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National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.