By Janet Foster
It started with an email. My inbox is replete with things that are sent to me without my permission. The fact is, I often don’t read them fully. I had my finger poised over the delete key while I was scanning an email from the NEA in October, when I read about the formation of a writing collaborative through an organization called VIVA (Voices Ideas Vision Action). I read on. For me, it’s kind of like walking into a book store with an unlimited gift card—I’m a sucker for a writing project.
I took a few minutes to compose my response to the question and sent it. I went back to the website a few times over the course of the next couple weeks to see what other people had written, and was encouraged to see so many other teachers writing about the same topics I did. Then I got another email; this one invited me to join VIVA. I hesitated briefly, then jumped in.
Along with my interest in writing, I decided to join because I wanted to see the people who are at the heart of the National Education Association (NEA). The picture I had in my mind was a smoke-filled room with grumpy, old men scowling, smoking cigars, and cooking up impossible ideas for the teachers of America. Teachers, the professionals who should be a part of their conversations, are never present when I imagine this scene. I’m not sure why; something to do with Jimmy Hoffa and union bosses in control of the ignorant masses. So I decided to join this writing group to develop ideas and suggestions to present to the union, to meet some of the movers and shakers of the NEA, and to refine my notion of the union’s intention.
When the VIVA writers finally met in Washington, D.C., we already knew something about each other, but that isn’t the same as being in the same room. We quickly became a cohesive group and we worked on last-minute adjustments to what we planned to say. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but even as we walked through the NEA headquarters’ doors, I wondered just how things would work since we had never rehearsed as a whole group.
Ultimately, rather than the original 90 minutes with three people that we had been told to expect, we spent four hours with a 12-person task force. Not only did we present our information, but we were also given time to join them at the table, literally, and speak directly with them and expand and discuss what we had written.The time passed quickly and some intense conversations on contentious topics drew passionate responses from both the NEA and VIVA groups. For a time during this discussion, the VIVA group dominated the conversation with specific comments and guided the talk toward some significant changes that we believe should be implemented. It seemed that we were being heard, and it was encouraging. In the end, the momentum of VIVA’s influence waned and it seemed that the NEA had reverted to ingrained, traditional thinking and it didn’t sound like they would seriously consider our suggested solutions. But they had just been handed our report and they hadn’t had time to read it yet. I believe that they did hear us, and that when they read and digest our full 50-page report, they will consider our recommendations. The NEA task force members are teachers, too, and they, like most of us, sometimes forget to question the status quo.
My trip to Washington, D.C. was short and I only had about two hours to walk and see the White House and the National Mall. As I stood at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, facing the reflecting pool, I thought of the footage I have watched with my students many times of Martin Luther King, Jr. standing on this same spot, giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. We study his speech because it was a significant turning point for many Americans because he was speaking to a national, multiracial audience, many of whom had heard of him, but had not heard him speak directly.
When my class reads and then watches the old black-and-white footage of this speech, we discuss the marked change in King’s presentation. He begins slowly and methodically, and he seems to have no passion for his audience. Then we notice the distinct point when he breaks away from his scripted speech and begins his impassioned plea to the crowd. One phrase that he repeats to make his point is, “Now is the time.” This inspirational mantra can be used in a new context for us today in the realm of public education in the U.S.
Now is the time for teachers, the union, and the public to work together and reverse the direction of a one-size-fitsall approach to teaching. Now is the time for the voices of teachers to be heard above the din of corporate, profit-making, non-education-based organizations. Now is the time to remember that we’re talking about the hearts and minds of our children.
This writing collaborative has been an incredible journey for me—both personally and professionally. I met my personal objectives by completing the writing task, presenting it to the task force, and taking a walking tour of some of the most iconic symbols of my country. My hope is that the task force will glean some ideas from our writing that will help them suggest specific steps that the NEA can take in the coming year. It will take much more than a single report from the writers of this one report to institute the changes that need to be made in public education, but one step is a beginning.
Fortunately, I found the NEA task force totally contrary to my imagined group. They were engaged and anxious to hear what we had to say. They were led by a vivacious, engaging leader, Becky Pringle, who questioned and prodded us to clarify our writing. The task force not only gave us an opportunity to present our findings, but they also showed a very down-to-earth, compassionate approach to what they were hearing. They did this because they are just as concerned about the future of schools and students as we are in the VIVA writing collaborative. I am glad to have a revised picture of what the NEA actually does behind closed doors.
Though the work is only beginning, I returned home to Oregon with a new appreciation of what it takes to make change happen—especially on a national level.
And incidentally, as I walked away from our presentation at the NEA building that crisp December evening, I am pleased to report that I did not see a single cigar.