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Member & Activist Spotlight

'The importance of collective voice went beyond that'

Jacob Bauer Zebley is a Social Studies Teacher in Harford County, Maryland
Jacob Bauer Zebley
Published: November 22, 2023

I came from a union family, so I joined NEA and my local affiliate, the Harford County Education Association, my first day on the job. However, my strong feelings about the importance of collective voice went beyond that.

I was an openly gay teacher. Entering the profession about 15 years ago in an area of Maryland, where identifying this way was rare, I didn’t always feel protected. However, I saw that the union was willing to see me simply as a good teacher and support me and the students who were LGBTQ. That meant a lot to me.

I also saw that the union was active in advocating for teachers and students and to make schools better – and that was equally important. I wanted to be part of the effort to improve Harford County Public Schools outside of my work in the classroom and could see the union was concerned about how we were taking care of people and securing the future of education.

I have shifted positions as an educator – becoming an instructional coach after receiving my doctorate and considering a role in school administration. But I knew that teaching was the work I loved, and I have since returned to the classroom, teaching high school social studies.

My students and their parents seem to respond to my efforts as a teacher, and my colleagues selected me as teacher of the year a few years ago. I improved as a teacher, and I think I helped other teachers hone their skills with our students. I know they helped me.

And within the union, apart from raising awareness about issues related to LGBTQ students and staff, I’ve advocated for several causes locally, statewide and nationally with NEA – in various positions, ranging from a building representative and treasurer of the Harford County Education Association to an NEA director.

We’ve worked on the state level for successful passage last year of the unique Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation, which among other things helps protect and adequately compensate a diverse and well-trained set of educators. It also sets specific goals to improve early childhood education, college and career readiness and assure the success of all students Importantly, it establishes a structure for holding state and local officials accountable for implementing the blueprints strategies.

For teachers, that legislation is not just about compensation, but focuses on advancing educators in their careers, making sure that class size is established to maximize learning and that teachers have adequate time for planning.

When I see something like the Blueprint become law and see other changes in education that have created greater fairness and an improved atmosphere for LGBTQ persons, I am optimistic about the future of our schools and thankful for our union.

But I also know that citizen groups are gaining strength in my district and elsewhere, hoping to ban books and restrict students from learning about what I believe are fundamental ideas related to my field – history –   and the makeup of our diverse culture.

Our union is an important force to build our educational system and protect it from misguided thinking that will hamper our ability to help our students learn and become well-rounded citizens.

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.