On July 4th of this year, the National Education Association (NEA), the largest U.S. labor organization, made history: its membership elected three women of color as its leaders, and its first female head in 25 years.
Image: NEA Today / Calvin Knight. Used by permission.
Beginning on September 1, 2014, Lily Eskelsen García, Rebecca S. “Becky” Pringle, and Princess Moss will serve as president, vice-president and secretary-treasurer, respectively, of the nearly three million-member union.
Esklesen García is a former Utah Teacher of the Year. She began her career as a lunch lady, then became a primary teacher who worked with homeless children. She moves into the NEA president’s seat after serving two three-year terms as vice president, and becomes the most senior Latina in the nation’s labor movement.
Pringle, a science teacher who taught in a Harrisburg, PA area district, will rank second among the NEA leadership. She has 30 years of experience, and becomes one of the highest-ranking African-American female leaders in organized labor. (Learn more about her from the NEA's post-election profile of her.)
Princess Moss of Louisa County, Virginia will succeed Pringle as NEA secretary-treasurer after winning a competitive race for the open seat. Moss previously served two three-year terms on NEA’s Executive Committee, among other union roles. With more than 20 years in the classroom as an elementary school music teacher, she adamantly believes in the value and role of music, fine arts, and physical education. Moss used a campaign website and Facebook, among other tools, to gain an edge for her win.
Regarding the groundbreaking nature of the results from a gender and race perspective, Patricia Frost Brooks, past president of the Ohio Education Association and the first woman of color to lead the OEA (2007-2013), who helped Moss campaign for NEA secretary-treasurer, had this to say in a phone interview:
"I’m excited about the election. I was in tears of joy back home waiting for the results, texting people waiting. I wrote on Facebook that this organization has elected three women and three women of color, and everyone should be talking about it."
From a more practical viewpoint, Brooks was unequivocal about what this outcome means to the NEA and the people it serves:
"These three women ran on a platform of education and what they could do for public education to make it strong, and stronger. The theme was that the NEA teaches and educates everyone. They are accomplished, knowledgeable, confident, and have worked diligently on the engagement of members and in the profession of education. People that know both Lily and Becky, as well as Princess, are women and are women of color, but that wasn’t the focal point of this election. It was their vision for education for this largest union of the United States."
Princess Moss, the incoming secretary-treasurer, says that there is a great deal of energy around women's leadership—and that, "...the time for women and the respect for the leadership that women and girls can bring is upon us." She feels that the results say that "...you can do anything you want, as long as you put your mind to it and work hard and keep focused." Moss is hopeful that her election will "give fortitude to young girls—or anyone, for that matter."
For the millions of educators and support staff served by the NEA, these electoral wins demonstrate the strength of the union's training programs, which Eskelsen García describes as stellar. Among its programs, the NEA offers training for women on campaigning to win, as well as minority leadership training. Moss, the newly elected secretary-treasurer, went through both programs.
Eskelsen García believes that the new leadership's effect on youth has the potential to be profound.
Earlier in her career, she says, she would appear at events with Latina youth and talk about her experience having a mother from Panama, and the way in which that affected use of a second language.
"I would see tears in the kids' eyes—there is this connection, because the kids look around and they don't see people who look like them, and they don't know that people looking like them can achieve. Then they see, 'You're the vice president of this big organization … I can do that.' It gives them confidence, and they're excited to realize [that the second language] was a gift to have, not a drawback."
Meryl Johnson, a longtime education advocate and a former member of the Cleveland Teachers Union leadership team, echoes García's enthusiasm.
"It's a huge opportunity for the focus to be on our minority students, because unfortunately, those are the students who are being disenfranchised from getting the quality of education that they should be getting. Teaching, itself, is being able to empathize and be compassionate, and to understand [where] our children are coming from. Even if you are not exactly in the same shoes, you should at least want to find out. Having read that the new president was teaching homeless children, and reading about her past, I’m just really excited for students in general, and minority students in particular—because they really haven’t been paid enough attention."
Eskelsen García left no room for doubt about what the NEA's top priorities will be. Since 1989, when she was Teacher of the Year in Utah, she came to view the greatest worry and challenge of education as embodied by something very specific that she observed during parent-teacher conferences. She would show what she calls "incredible portfolios of what kids do" to parents, who would almost invariably zero in on the score from the one "little achievement test. …It was all that the parents focused on, because it was so easy to connect to as a number!" And she says that she would try to redirect parents to the breadth of the portfolio contents, only to see them remain focused on the numbers.
"And look where we are [today]: Nobody cares about real teaching and learning. We have turned these tests—something that means so little—into everything. We are corrupting what we teach. We must end toxic teaching. We must end making high-stakes decisions based on one commercial standardized test.
"If I have one breath left in my body, it will be to speak against the germ that has infected us that says everything you do is about hitting a cut score. That's a corporate model which by the way led to our global economic meltdown. That was all about some guy on Wall Street hitting a number—and they hit it by cheating. And now we've used that corporate model to build a house of cards around education, destroying and corrupting education."
The solution, and therefore the priority? "We are going to start a movement to the whole child getting what he or she needs, and that's what we will be focused on." The precedent-setting election for the National Education Association certainly portends a high probability of making good on such a movement.
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Disclosure: As a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Ohio House of Representatives, District 12 seat in May 2014, I was endorsed by the OEA and received a campaign contribution. I am not nor have I ever been affiliated with the NEA, nor did I request or receive any campaign-related assistance, endorsement, or support for the 2014 primary.
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