Trust your students. Make them your full and equal partners in your efforts toward educational success and justice, NEA Higher Educator of the Year Bonniejean Alford told NEA Representative Assembly (RA) delegates on Wednesday.
Alford, a writer, blogger, podcaster, publisher, photographer, and sociology instructor at Illinois’ College of DuPage, where she also has been a leader in the NEA-affiliated adjunct faculty union, addressed delegates via a prerecorded video.
“My charge in life is to create justice,” she told delegates. “I know, my fellow educators, that your mission in life is to do much the same thing. That’s why we’re here, right? We’re here to be a voice for educators everywhere. We’re here, doing the work. I’m here, doing the work, so that education is good for future generations.”
Alford believes in the kind of education that charges students with becoming the very best that they can be, with changing and growing “and having joy while doing it,” she told delegates. And, just as students trust their educators to guide them through this process, we all must trust them to say what they need along the way.
The Educators Who Showed Her the Way
Decades ago, Alford was a first grader who lived in chaos, she told delegates. Her home life was dark and awful. But her primary memory of that time is sweet. “My earliest memory is of my first-grade teacher. I don’t remember her name, but I remember the feeling of joy that she gave me when, in the midst of chaos in my life, she took me for ice cream!” she recalled.
“She was letting me know that I mattered, that I was a partner in life in some way,” said Alford. “Of course, at the time, all I felt was joy to be there with somebody who actually cared about me.”
Through the years, Alford has had other key educators—some who might not even be called “educators.” In 1988, when Alford was 12, a photograph by South African Sam Nzima, showing a bleeding, school-aged apartheid protester, would set her along a lifelong course of activism, which manifested in recent years as a faculty union leader.
A decade later, in her first teaching experience, a dying student would inspire her to fill her life with positivity and purpose. “He absolutely shaped who I am as a teacher, and how I am in the classroom,” she told NEA Today earlier this year.
“Be beautiful, be bold, be excellent.”
The NEA Higher Educator of the Year is chosen each spring by NEA’s National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) for their excellence and commitment to their students and colleagues. Alford is the fourth recipient of the award, which was established in 2018 by NCHE and the NEA Foundation, which provides a $10,000 stipend to the winner. (In 2021, California community college counselor Julius B. Thomas was similarly honored.)
As an educator, Alford is compassionate and inventive, using multimedia content like the “Walking Dead” television show to connect with students and demonstrate sociological concepts. As a colleague, she is equally committed to helping others—like she has been helped along the way.
At heart, she’s still a student, always learning. And that heart reflects the challenge that she called on RA delegates to meet: “My challenge to you is to step into the classroom this fall… to step on to 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,” she said.
“When I was that little girl, sitting across from my teacher enjoying ice cream, I wasn’t just a student in the classroom. I was someone she was trusting,” Alford said.
“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.”