Editor’s Note: At NSEA’s 157th Delegate Assembly in April, NSEA President Jenni Benson and Executive Director Maddie Fennell teamed up to address the 270-plus member-delegates in attendance. This adaptation comes from their address:
Jenni: My road with NSEA has been like most roads: turns, curves and a few potholes. Here I am, 25 years in, serving as NSEA President and still on that roadway. Along the way, when I needed doors opened, NSEA was there with the key.
Maddie: I would not have been successful without NSEA. It was through NSEA I had supportive mentors, great professional development, and someone to watch my back when my advocacy threatened those who weren’t focused on doing what was best for kids and teachers. I am proud to continue that tradition as your executive director, implementing our new Strategic Plan and focusing our resources and activities to meet our mission: A Great Public Education for Every Student.
Jenni: We started the strategic planning process three years ago under President Nancy Fulton’s leadership. Last year at DA members approved our goals and outcomes. Today, we will share how the plan has been further developed and will be the key to NSEA’s future success.
Maddie: It’s important that the Strategic Plan doesn’t become just another white paper sitting on a shelf. Our plan must be a dynamic, living document that holds us accountable.
Jenni: The first goal: NSEA will advance a culture of social justice by improving educational opportunities for ALL students and building respect for the worth, dignity and equality of every individual.
Justice is about member rights, work environment and what it takes to make sure every child can fulfill their potential.
No child chooses their lot in life. No child says, “give me a family that struggles.” I grew up in Sutherland in a family that struggled. My mother dealt with a range of mental health issues and did not work. My dad worked for 46 years at the local grain elevator. In elementary school I washed dishes for my lunch. My friends didn’t treat me differently, in fact they helped, because who doesn’t like spraying lunch trays with a giant nozzle? If I had not been given equal opportunity to achieve at school, I would not be here today.
Some of you have similar stories.
Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are focused on justice – and opportunity – for every child.
Maddie: We must first recognize the importance of every individual’s culture and experience, and how that affects who they are. As I grew up, both my folks were active alcoholics. They didn’t sober up until I was in high school. My sister was a late-in-life baby and grew up with two sober parents. Those are two very different cultures within one family. Each of us have life experiences and exposures to different kinds of information that form the lens through which we focus the world. We can begin to change that focus as we learn how to recognize, value and engage others in different ways.
Jenni: We cannot argue the fact that we have many more students of color than we do teachers of color. NSEA is committed to expanding the number of highly qualified individuals entering teaching, especially among students of color.
NSEA received an NEA grant focused on Educators Rising, a high school organization for students interested in teaching. We are using the grant to organize new chapters across the state. A year ago, there were roughly a dozen active chapters. Today there are more than 30, with more chapters targeted this year.
Maddie: We’ve increased professional development funding in our budget, and will partner with NEA and Creighton University on a social justice grant to train members how to more fully engage in issues around race. Our new 501c(3), LEARN (Leading Excellence and Robust Networks), will offer professional development around trauma-informed classrooms and other pertinent issues.
Jenni: Now look at this list and check off a couple of things you can do to advance this goal:
- I will identify and learn about my personal biases.
- I will offer to be a paid Praxis tutor.
- I will support Educators Rising.
- I will give financial support to the Children’s Fund.
- I will utilize the Children’s Fund for my students.
- I will participate in LEARN trainings.
Support for New Educators
Maddie: Our second goal is to partner with national and local affiliates to strengthen our capacity.
Jenni: Each day we build relationships and work to increase organizational capacity. The NSEA board and staff have spent the past year putting the Strategic Plan into action to support policy, events, activities and promotions. We are partnering with NEA and our locals to implement some exciting objectives. Engaging our members is key.
NEA’s New Educator Campaign focuses on collecting information on all new-to-the-profession members and potential members to develop programming to meet their needs. NSEA has received yet another grant from NEA, this one to support new-to-the-profession educators, focusing on rural schools.
Maddie: We’ve also partnered with NEA to offer grants to support breakfast in the classroom. The Grand Island Education Association jumped on board and received an NEA Foundation grant of more than $112,000 to help with the hard costs of delivering breakfast to classrooms. We’ve partnered with other organizations in the past year, including the Nebraska Child Health and Education Alliance, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, and more. We’re always reaching out to new partners to multiply the effect we can have in meeting our strategic goals. Please consider strengthening our capacity by:
- I will join NEA 360 at: https://mynea360.force.com
- I will find at least one member to join before May 31.
- I will help sign up new members in the fall and gather information on potential members.
- I will attend Organizing for Membership Training.
- I will attend a building rep training.
- I will participate in events that align with the NSEA Strategic Plan.
‘Blessed to Serve’
Jenni: Our third goal is to advance the economic well-being and secure the contractual rights of our members.
I was interviewed by a reporter in April. He looked out my office window at the state capitol across the street and asked whether I ever get tired of the view, knowing what does or doesn’t happen there.
I said, “No, I am blessed to serve from this office. My job is to educate those who may not understand our issues, and to remember who we represent: our members, our students, our stakeholders. Our mission is a quality public education for ALL students. That building represents ALL Nebraskans.”
My job is to make sure that message is heard. Retirement benefits, contract negotiations, bargaining, advocacy, that is our union work on your behalf.
Maddie: Over the last several years we have seen tremendous increases in healthcare costs. Part of advancing the economic well-being of members is to make sure that health care costs are controlled so money can go to salaries instead of insurance premiums. We are proud of the work we’ve done with the school board and administrator associations in managing the Educators Health Alliance (EHA), offering the physical and mental health resources that members need on a cost-effective basis.
This goal is also about supporting your local negotiations team and knowing your contract. We offer trainings to help members be strong advocates at the bargaining table, as well as in meetings with administrators. When you feel you need further assistance, our organizational specialists are there to walk in with you and advocate for you.
Jenni: In this “Spring of the Educator” we’ve seen politics take a new turn. From West Virginia to Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona, teachers are raising their voices to advocate not just for their own economic well-being, but for their schools, for their students. Please consider these ways to engage:
- I will complete negotiations surveys.
- I will participate in NSEA’s Navigator Training.
- I will attend an area Advocacy Conference (see page 2).
- I will attend EHA update meetings.
‘Stopping the Crazy’
Maddie: The fourth goal says NSEA supports a political environment that promotes and protects public education.
Our work at “stopping the crazy” on the policy front could pivot to “promoting excellence” if we elected more officials who support public education. Sadly, we have a secretary of education who doesn’t believe in the institution she is supposed to lead. Closer to home, we have a governor who vetoed legislation to provide mental health support for the neediest students!
Jenni: It isn’t easy to lace up your tennis shoes and knock on doors, or to call strangers in support of a pro-education candidate. But if we don’t all take those steps, we could be the next Arizona, Oklahoma or Colorado. We may not outspend Pete Ricketts, but we can out-knock him!
Sign up for NSEA’s weekly Legislative Update so you can use your teaching skills not just with kids, but to educate voters about why they should sign the Medicaid expansion petition.
Maddie: Jenni is right….one of the first things I learned as with the Student Education Association of Nebraska is this: Every decision in education is political, from how many pencils you have, to how many students and desks you have to what your salary is. That hasn’t changed in my 30-plus years in education. Every one of our 28,000 members, and every voter, needs to understand that those little bubbles you fill in on Election Day have a tremendous effect on what we can offer to students. Please consider being more politically active:
- I will work at least two hours for an NSEA-recommended candidate.
- I will sign up for NSEA’s Legislative Update.
- I will participate in a candidate interview team.
- I will serve on a school board/legislative contact team.
- I will participate in political engagement training.
Meeting Your Needs
Jenni: Our final goal offers support for governance structures that are responsive to the needs of our membership. In our association, hired staff and elected leaders work in concert to meet the needs of members. Your membership gives us the resources to keep things on track, but your leadership is key to our mission. We would ask that you consider these items:
- I will participate in the president’s conference calls.
- I will serve on local/state/national committees.
- I will join in membership organizing training.
- I will attend/recruit others to attend Leadership Institute.
- I will seek election or encourage others to do so.
- I will mentor new teachers.
Maddie: We say this a lot, but we need you. We know you are stretched thin. We ask you to find an area that appeals to your passion, an area where you have skills and talents to contribute. There are many opportunities for you to engage.
We thank you for all you do on behalf of our members and our students. We know that you are making a difference in the lives of our students and in the success of our Association.