Welcome to Your First Year

by NSEA President Jenni Benson

Many of you I have met, and I hope to meet all or many of the rest of you soon. If I could meet you all together, in one space or spot, I would have one thing to say: whether you are certified staff, a higher education member, a paraprofessional or are involved in education in some other way, welcome to your first year at school!

I say “first year” with good reason. Navigating the school experience in this pandemic-laden environment is essentially a first-year experience for all of us. It’s like a feeling of déjà vu, taking us back to that first year of teaching, with a very off-kilter start to school opening.

When the coronavirus arrived earlier this year, it did not offer a playbook for medical professionals. It did not provide lesson plans for teachers. Yet medical professionals have toiled heroically in dangerous conditions. Educators at all levels flipped on a dime to implement remote learning and other new and innovative methods of teaching.

In that regard, despite a few bumps along the road, educators have made incredible strides. We are teaching, and kids are learning. It may not be an optimal situation, but if we persevere and follow safety protocols, we will emerge stronger.

‘He Ain’t Heavy...’

As I am sure you do, I feel I am carrying a heavy load. Family and colleagues, school and community, all need our attention and our strength.

I spent some self-care time listening to music over the past summer. One song always reminds me that we are all family and that we must care about others as we toil under the weight of this relentless reminder that life as we know it is undergoing tremendous change.

The song traces back to 1880’s Scotland when a minister asked a little girl whether she needed help caring for and carrying her polio-stricken baby brother. The story survived in various forms and surfaced off and on through the years. It eventually became a hit song, with a 1969 version by The Hollies gaining the most exposure. This segment from He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother is so moving:
The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.

Rooted in service and equity, our advocacy for members is a hard pull, a heavy load. However, that advocacy is made easier and we are made stronger by working for the benefit of all students and all educators. The knowledge that I stand atop the shoulders of so many great teachers is an honor as I start my second term as president of NSEA. I am completely dedicated to the service of our Association’s commitment to great public schools for ALL children.

A Sharp Focus

I began my second term in early August with a 1,300-mile, eight-stop trip across the state. I found amazing educators at every turn, each genuinely working together for the betterment of their students and their school. They were using their strong voices and actions to make sure their school district’s learning environment was safe.

Every member and local association have unique circumstances and needs. I am proud of our NSEA leaders, management and staff who are working together to ensure every fiber of our Association strength is working for members so that members can continue to use their voices for the betterment of all.

At NSEA, our advocacy has been sharply focused for much of the spring and summer on a message of “safe return to learn.” I have completed dozens of media interviews, ending most with the clear message that “safety is the Number 1 priority when looking at reopening schools.”

Professor David Brett-Major, in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health concurred with our stance, and said: “I agree with the teacher’s union. That is, if you’re going to take steps to open schools, it should be done in concert with a strategy that’s looking to decrease overall risk.”

Our educators are strong and dedicated. With members like that, our work is made easier, our actions are recognized. As we traverse this new “first year” we cannot ask for more.

Be safe, and have a great year!