More than 40 early-career educators from Bridgeport, Manchester, Stamford, and Waterbury gathered for a kickoff meeting of the Early Leadership Institute (ELI), a program of the National Education Association, CEA, and the Center for Great Public Schools.
Teacher fellows were joined by CEA staff, including UniServ representatives, as well as their local association presidents—all there to work on developing stronger public schools and greater teacher leadership capacity within those schools.
The kickoff meeting, which took place in Norwalk over two days last weekend, included an overview of ELI as well as workshops to unpack different models of unionism, cultural competencies necessary for effective teaching and leading, what types of union activities each local association is already engaged in, and where there may be gaps or areas for improvement.
The point of the institute, says CEA UniServ Rep Martin Deren, is to help early-career teachers become effective advocates for their colleagues: to open up conversations with other early-career teachers about their challenges and needs, to present those concerns to their local association leaders, and to work with leadership to effect meaningful change.
Teachers as leaders
Deren, who helped facilitate the workshops, says, “Many of the activities over the ELI kickoff weekend were designed to help new teachers—mostly those with under six years’ experience—become more knowledgeable, confident, and empowered as teacher advocates.”
“Our mission as an organization is to advocate for education professionals and unite our members in fulfilling the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse, interdependent world,” says CEA President Jeff Leake, who described for fellows his own leadership journey within the teaching profession.
“I first got involved as a way of changing the economics of teaching, because at one time, teachers’ salaries qualified them for food stamps. I became interested in economic justice for teachers and others, as well as the economics of public education and the communities we serve. As our local prepared to strike, I made my first foray into organizing.”
The first teacher in his local association to attend an NEA Representative Assembly, Leake went on to assume leadership roles at the statewide level, including CEA treasurer and vice president, before being elected president in 2018. “As president, I want to develop the next generation of leaders,” he says.
“Every teacher leader started out as an early-career educator and took those first few steps,” says NEA senior policy analyst Barbara Hicks, who, together with fellow NEA policy analyst Richelle Patterson, led the ELI kickoff. “We are holding Early Leadership Institutes in other states and finding that teachers are already taking what they’ve learned back home and starting to put it into practice.”
CEA Director of Policy, Research, and Government Relations Ray Rossomando told fellows, “Everyone in this room shares a passion and a story about why you became a teacher. You wanted to make a difference, and by and large you are doing just that. Yet, it’s challenging. Teachers remain isolated in classrooms for hours on end, grading papers at night, and preparing lesson plans in between. How do you build leadership skills to do things such as make your school trauma-informed, create a more positive culture, ensure that your faculty includes more teachers of color, or move from standardized testing to more meaningful assessments of children’s critical thinking?
“Being a leader doesn’t mean being an administrator; teacher leadership means building your capacity to lead and collaborate with your peers to tackle bigger issues than you can tackle on your own in your classroom. The work you will begin this weekend can help you to start down such a path, and we are here to help. Your professional association is a family of support that includes your local union, CEA, and NEA. We’re in this together.”
Three frames of unionism
One of the first lessons ELI participants learned was the three models of unionism:
- Industrial unionism, which concerns itself with the bread-and-butter issues of wages, hours, benefits, discrimination, and contractual rights that are negotiated for teachers
- Professional unionism, which seeks appropriate professional development so that teachers can be highly effective educators, advocates for their students, and leaders at their schools
- Social justice unionism, where members work to eliminate inequities that poverty brings to the classroom, with the understanding that education is a human right for every student
Working with members from their own local association, including coaches Michael Brosnan (Bridgeport), Catherine Mazzotta (Manchester), Ali Kirchberger (Waterbury), and Sandra Peterkin (Stamford), teacher fellows received a set of color-coded cards with actions representing each of the three models of unionism. Their task was to sort them according to whether or not their union participates in those activities and to give a better picture of the balance of industrial, professional, and social justice unionism within their own association.
Early-career educators took a first stab at sorting the cards themselves, using group discussion to guide their choices; later, UniServ Representatives, coaches, and local presidents weighed in and cleared up any misconceptions.
CEA UniServ Rep Eric Marshall, who facilitated the activity for Bridgeport teachers, said his group had a thorough understanding of their local association’s activities and the balance among the three frames of unionism.
“They are very active in their union, and they get it,” Marshall said. “All of the educators in this institute are highly engaged. They’re here because they believe in the strength of their union, and they want to continue building on it. This particular activity validated the perceptions that new and emerging leaders have of the Bridgeport Education Association.”
How will you lead?
Fourth-year Manchester High School math teacher Shawn McClory says he hopes to be the kind of teacher leader who represents everyone’s thoughts and concerns and who opens up paths of communication between early-career educators, veteran teachers, and central office administrators.
“I want members to feel comfortable knowing where to go with their concerns, and I believe a group effort can enact positive change. Strong involvement is critical to getting buy-in and raising awareness of important areas where more investment in public education needs to be made.”
McClory said ELI is helping him get a clearer picture of teachers’ perspectives within his own diverse district, where teacher and student needs and challenges can vary greatly from one school to the next.
Fifth-year Manchester High School physical education/health teacher and building representative Stefanie Grande wants to be the type of leader her colleagues can come to for help, “especially those in their first through fifth years, since we have a lot of new hires in our district. Younger teachers need a voice at the table. Whether it’s salary, student debt, working conditions, or workload, new teachers are up against all of it, and our goal as a union is to do whatever we can to lighten their load.”
Fellow physical education/health teacher Ricardo Gibson, who teaches at the preK-8 level in Waterbury, is also focused on being someone his early-career colleagues can come and talk to. “They have so much on their plates, and they need to be heard. Having a fellow teacher to turn to can really build morale.” The two-way communication benefits everyone, Gibson says, explaining, “New teachers have fresh, different ideas, and they bring new things to the table, including a good grasp of technology.”
Waterbury social studies teacher Kim Rock, in her sixth year as a teacher, says, “A lot of union leaders, such as building reps, are established in their careers, and they know the work that the union does. Younger teachers may not understand all of this, so I see it as my job to get my peers amped up, to show them that the union negotiates your contract, the union has your back, and they fight for you. My end goal is to improve instructional outcomes for students and to help teachers become better at what they do.”
Bassick High School environmental science teacher Ricki Chiem says she wants to be “an informed and transformational leader who is visionary and creative—someone who gains the support of community leaders and holds them accountable for transforming our local community.”
Fellow Bassick Spanish teacher Martin Rubin, adds, “I plan to use my platform and these new ELI resources to enhance professional development, social justice, and social/emotional learning in our district.”
Rubin—a first-year teacher—notes that many early career teachers are not sure what their union is, what it does, and what their rights are. As a result, they may not have the confidence to speak up and try to bring about change at a higher level. He hopes his training as an early-career leader will fill that void.
“Our union leaders are looking out for the younger members of our profession,” says Bridgeport social studies teacher Andres Reyes.
One of the most eye-opening—and emotional—activities of the ELI kickoff was one in which teachers designed a “cultural bag” representing who they are as individuals and how they hope others see them. They decorated their bags with hand-drawn images of themselves and filled them with five index cards identifying, in a word or phrase, who they are as people. Cards included participants’ names and ethnicity as well as words such as teacher, father, sister, strong, or friend. Fellows paired off with teachers from other districts and introduced themselves to each other, using the cards to explain a little about themselves.
After some brief conversation, teachers were directed to reach into their own bags and choose a card to tear up. Many struggled to get through this part.
“It was hard for me to rip up ‘Vietnamese,’” said Chiem. “It’s so central to my identity, my sense of who I am.”
Then, things got harder. Participants exchanged cultural bags with their partners, who were directed to tear up all but one of the remaining cards. People were anxious about which parts of their identities would be destroyed.
“This activity sometimes leaves people in tears,” Patterson said.
Kamilah Francis was left with only the word “strong.”
With her hand on her heart, she explained, “I am a mother of two boys. One of the cards that was torn up represented that.”
“This made me wonder,” said Chiem, “Do I ever do this to my students—reduce their identity by what I say or don’t say in the classroom?”
Teachers wondered if certain habits or behaviors—for example, giving students nicknames instead of using their ethnic names—inadvertently undermined their sense of self.
“It was a struggle here to rip up each other’s cards, and that hit me,” said one Manchester teacher. “How many times might I unknowingly do that to my students every day?”
Laying the foundation
Third-year elementary school teacher Amina Toor, of Stamford, says she owes her participation in ELI to a colleague’s mother who is highly involved in the Stamford Education Association.
“I saw this as an opportunity for early-career educators like myself, and that was all I needed to hear. I wanted to meet like-minded teachers, be inspired by them, share our energy, get a sense of our strengths and challenges and a greater awareness of SEA, and know the issues inside and outside our local.” Toor, a first-generation American, said the ELI kickoff also provided some historical background on the National Education Association. “It was eye-opening for me, learning about the work that went into elevating teachers to where we are today.”
Stamford teacher Bonita Maddox learned that certain new and long-standing teacher protections that she attributed to her district’s human resources department were actually the work of her union.
“I had no idea,” she said.
Over the two-day training, fellows discussed public education priorities, building-level challenges, and ways union members can get the message to those who set education policy.
Bridgeport language arts teacher Jeffrey Brown said, “This is a good time to have these conversations, with a new governor in Connecticut.”
This ELI cohort of Bridgeport, Manchester, Stamford, and Waterbury teachers will continue to meet over the next six months. (Click here for more photos from this event.)
Interested in becoming a teacher leader in your local association? Talk to your CEA UniServ Representative. CEA’s Professional Learning Academy (PLA) offers project-based Teacher Leadership workshops to help you on your path. Learn more by contacting 860-525-5641 or firstname.lastname@example.org.