A Lesson from Bee

by Jenni Benson, NSEA President

After teaching special education for 30 years, I moved on Aug. 1 into a new role – a different kind of classroom experience, if you will – as president of your NSEA.

This year reminds me of my first year in the classroom. There is excitement and anxiety. There is an understanding that there is a steep learning curve and much work ahead for this teacher.

Yet unlike a new teacher, I have the luxury of experience and many good memories to help me along. My teaching career started at Dobie Middle School in Austin, TX, and I recall my first day quite vividly. I started at the semester break, without the comfort of in-service or training for new teachers.

But I had Bee.

Bee was Beetrece Jewel Stewart, my assigned classroom assistant. She had lived all over the world with her Army husband and they had retired in Austin. Bee dressed up every day. She stood well over six feet. She wore heels every day. She was a force to be reckoned with. I was fortunate to have such an able assistant in my room.

We worked together in a self-contained classroom for students with severe behavioral concerns. We had 14 boys and one girl, and I was the fourth teacher to work with that group of kids since the beginning of the school year. I dove in, and Bee guided and assisted, leading me to become the best teacher I could be. We overcame challenges, and we had bumps and bounces along the way. In the end, we had many, many successes. Together, we had a great semester. More importantly, so did my students. We were a very good team.

I remember to this day what Bee told me early on.

“Listen. Go to the lounge, listen,” she said.

“Listen to your colleagues. Listen to the students. Hear what they say, but more importantly, listen to what they don’t say. After you listen you can make a plan.”

Spread Across Nebraska

I have spent the past 10 weeks traveling around the country and around Nebraska doing the work of NSEA. I’ve traveled more than 14,000 miles so far. And I am still following Bee’s advice. I am listening.  

In fact, all members of the NSEA executive team spread across the state this summer to visit with local leaders and members at area and local new teacher meetings. Vice President Paul Schulte of Millard; NEA Board members Tracy Hartman-Bradley of Omaha and Linda Freye of Lincoln; and Executive Director Maddie Fennell; all drove or rode hundreds of thousands of miles as they traversed the state to listen to you and other members.

A key element of NSEA’s newly adopted Strategic Plan includes member engagement. Your executive team wants to know what you want and need. Your concerns will guide our work.

Eager to Share

What did we hear? What did we learn?

We found – as expected – that Nebraska teachers and support staff are eager to share the wonderful successes of public schools.

Whether I was in Hartington or Hastings, McCook or Millard, Auburn or Alliance, Norfolk or my hometown North Platte, the stories consistently spoke about a passion for quality teaching and learning for all students.

We learned that the concerns of members in Alliance are no different than the concerns of members in Ashland. They are worried about funding, resources, classroom needs and teacher autonomy. We heard a great deal about how bad policy affects students. We heard about the need to talk to policymakers and education stakeholders about what will and what won’t help students and their families.

Indeed, our state’s future depends on our children. I once heard it said that our children are a small percentage of our population, but it is no doubt that our children are 100 percent of our future. We – and that ‘we’ includes policymakers – must always give our children our best.

A Constant Flow

Speaking of successes, we must constantly remind the public of the successes of Nebraska’s public schools. That is why Maddie Fennell and I have engaged in more than 40 interviews with newspapers, radio and television stations across the state over these past few weeks.

I would urge all educators to share their stories of success. We all have a local radio station, newspaper or television station that is looking to fill pages or airtime. When you have a success, call and ask for coverage. A constant flow of good news from public schools will assist us all as we work to thwart the anti-public school agenda in Nebraska.

The anti-public school groups promote a national narrative of problems in public schools across the U.S. That narrative is largely false, and is surely not the Nebraska narrative. While there is always room for improvement, we know Nebraska has one of the best public school systems in the country. The public must be given a clear picture of our successes.

As you begin a new school year, whether it is your first or your 30th, tell your story to all who will listen, whether it is the local editor or a neighbor.

Similarly, do not hesitate to contact any members of NSEA’s executive team. Beetrece Jewel Stewart was there for me. We are here to listen to and assist you. Email Paul, Maddie and I at: firstname.lastname@nsea.org

You can also reach NEA Directors Tracy Hartman-Bradley (trhb1000@gmail.com) and Linda Freye (lfreye62@gmail.com)

Like Bee and I, we’ll all make a great team together!