After two years of the pandemic, delegates to the 2022 NEA Representative Assembly (RA) were finally back in person, with about 6,000 members from around the country convening on July 3 – 6 in Chicago, with a remote option. There was a feeling of renewal and celebration after another difficult year. As delegates gathered, they felt restored by the hope, energy, and determination of their union to come back better and stronger than ever.
“We will prevail!” NEA President Becky Pringle promised in her keynote address.
The challenges facing educators, students, and communities today are real and many, Pringle acknowledged. They include crippling educator shortages, a lack of professional pay, an ongoing assault on curricula that honestly confront this nation’s history of racism and openly celebrate LGBTQ+ people.
But NEA members continue to stand strong and embrace their role as the voice of education professionals, she told the RA delegates.
“You have found a way to resist, even as you hold onto joy. Courageous and creative," she said. "Prepared and persistent. You stand in the power of NEA—and NEA stands in the power that is you!”
Educators Fight for Freedom
In her address to delegates, Executive Director Kim Anderson said students are counting on educators to stand up for our freedom—and that it starts with the work that teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) do every day in their schools.
“You read books; you don’t ban them. You teach the truth about our history; you don’t deny it. You protect our children’s safety, not the gunmakers’ profits. You see our children as they are; you don’t deny their identities,” Anderson said before the energized crowd. Just hours earlier, the assembly had passed an inspiring new policy statement on Safe, Just, and Equitable Schools, which further asserts NEA’s dedication to forging a better future for all students.
RA Delegates Vote to Continue Critical Work on Safety, Equity, and Justice
The delegates approved the policy statement in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic, as students, educators, and communities face politicians and institutions that are taking away freedoms and rights, brushing off a growing gun violence epidemic, attempting to divide communities by race and place, and increasing restrictions on what educators can teach and what students can learn.
The new NEA policy statement continues to build on the ongoing racial and social justice work of the association. In 2021, RA delegates approved a measure, NBI-A, that established a task force to identify criteria for safe, just, and equitable schools. Over the course of a year, the task force met to research, gather evidence, and consult with educators and experts. The work involved engaging with national partners, state and local affiliates, racial justice advocates, allies, and community activists. NEA's new policy statement is the result of that work and is guided by four core principles:
Adopt a restorative justice philosophy to create a school climate that rejects the criminalization and policing of students.
Provide training and support for culturally competent instruction.
Develop and implement plans to end disparities in disciplinary and behavioral practices.
Create a community-centered school environment to foster safe, positive environments and engage all members of the public school.
Educators Are Essential to Children’s Future and the Future of American Democracy
In an electrifying address, Vice President Kamala Harris brought down the house when she told delegates that educators are essential to our democracy.
“The president and I are counting on you to help us move forward as a nation, just as NEA has done throughout its history,” Harris said. The vice president recounted key moments in NEA advocacy, such as when the organization protected Black teachers in school districts that defied desegregation in the 1950s; when NEA led the charge to lower the voting age to 18, in 1971; and when, in 2012, NEA helped to pass DACA, the law that protects undocumented learners.
She said she realizes educators will face many challenges when they return to schools next year, and it may feel like they are the only ones who see what’s at stake. But she urged them to remember that the fight toward progress is not linear.
“You will go back and often be in a situation where it ... feels like you might be the only one who sees what you’re seeing and understands what’s at stake. But let’s remember moments like this … and that the fight toward progress, by its very nature, is not linear,” Harris said. “Do not despair. Do not be overwhelmed. Do not throw up your hands when it is a time to roll up our sleeves.”
I Still Have Hope
The 2022 Teacher of the Year Kurt Russell is ready to roll up his sleeves. He has hope for what’s to come because he has faith in everything teachers embody.
“The foundation of this country and the greatness of this country begins with a teacher,” Russell said in his address to the RA. “Teachers are hope personified.”
Russell said he, like so many others, felt sad and depressed after a rash of horrific mass shootings, including the tragic loss of innocent lives in Uvalde, Texas. He was left wondering: How can we protect our students and teachers?
But he refused to remain in a state of despair. Inspired by the words on a T-shirt a friend gave him, he shared those same words in a social media post: “I still have hope.”
“I have hope in the millions of students that are courageous and bright and that will create a better world. I have hope in the millions of educators who provide love and normalcy to an unkind world. I have hope in the transformative power of education that can move the needle towards equity and justice.”
Moving that needle requires the strength and collective power of the union, Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year Debra Ward-Mitchell told RA delegates.
As union members and leaders, she said, NEA members have the power to fight for the professional respect that all educators want and deserve.
“Through our union, we can find hope in each other—through love, support, and care,” Ward-Mitchell said. “ESPs, teachers, higher ed faculty, specialized instructional support personnel, and other educators: We must lean on each other. We’re all part of the same education family.”
Partnerships for a Future of Excellence
In her speech to delegates, Higher Educator of the Year Bonniejean Alford challenged educators "to step into the classroom this fall, … to step onto the school buses, to walk down those hallways, wherever you are educating, and look at your students as partners. Bring them into the process, even if they’re in kindergarten or first grade.”
“That’s what partnership is. That’s what partnership can be. And that’s how we build a future of excellence, a future meant for justice,” she told delegates. “So, my fellow educators, my fellow humans, go out into the world. Be beautiful, be bold, and be excellent.”
Those inspiring words could easily be lyrics for a song written by country music legend Dolly Parton, winner of NEA’s highest honor, the Friend of Education Award.
“Dolly Parton is a national treasure,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “In addition to bringing incalculable joy, with a smile like a breath of spring and a soft voice like summer rain, to fans across the world, she has championed literacy, learning, and diversity in literature for nearly half a century. In distributing more than 2 million books each month, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has poured a cup of ambition for millions of young children.”
Together, Let's Be More
In a video thank-you to the NEA delegates gathered in Chicago, Parton said she knows how hard educators work to help every student succeed.
"I’m working to do my part as well,” Parton said. “My foundation offers college scholarships for local high school students, and my theme park, Dollywood, is covering college tuition and expenses for employees.”
But Parton says she is most excited about her Imagination Library.
“Together, let’s continue to inspire kids to dream more, care more, learn more, and therefore, be more,” she said.
To listen to more speeches, learn more about policies and business conducted, and enjoy more moments from the 2022 NEA Annual Meeting and Assembly, visit nea.org/ra.