In her opening remarks at the 2017 CEA Summer Leadership Conference, President Sheila Cohen told a packed ballroom, “All of you represent the equalizers in our society, the igniting sparks of innovation and creativity, and the social justice warriors of our nation. You make a difference. You are teachers.”
On this, day two of the annual conference, Cohen’s hundreds of warriors continued enriching their professional development for the classroom, expanding their skills on union issues, and building and renewing relationships with their colleagues across the state—and in some cases, across the state border.
Twenty-year veteran speech and language pathologist Stacey DelGiorno, a building representative in Berlin, was happy for the opportunity to catch up with former colleagues from Wallingford and meet new friends as well.
“I find it a great place to network and keep connecting,” said DelGiorno, who is attending the Summer Leadership Conference for the second year in a row. “Last year, I brought back a lot of valuable information to our school on how to communicate with staff and how to hold mini meetings.”
Joseph Cassady, one of nine members of NEA Rhode Island attending CEA’s Summer Leadership Conference, said the event is “an opportunity to look at the state right next door—where we are looking at the same horizon. We’ve made great strides in our teacher evaluation system, which Connecticut has already accomplished. But our pension system was ravaged. Our teachers got crushed by the new pension system.” In one of the best examples of relationship-building at Association events, Cassady met his wife, CEA member and Torrington teacher Carrie Cassady, at the NEA RA five years ago in Chicago.
Over the course of her decade as a teaching professional, Montville Education Association’s new vice president, Jennifer Natale, says her involvement with the union has grown, and recent threats to the profession have redoubled her commitment to her colleagues.
“Last year, I was our local Association’s membership chair. I went to the CEA RA and got more involved in the union. I realize how important that is. We are in a fight for our profession now,” Natale said, “and on the state level, we are fighting for our retirement and against putting that responsibility—that tax—on our towns.”
Glastonbury Education Association Secretary Miles Lubben, attending the conference for the first time, said the states he taught in previously—Arizona and Indiana—were so-called “right-to-work states,” where teacher protections were weak or nonexistent. “Now that I’m in Connecticut, I’m in a state where the union protects teachers and where I can help my colleagues. I’m here to be more knowledgeable about how that works, more involved, part of the process.”
Third-year conference attendee Eric Bergman, a building rep in Clinton, also taught in Arizona before coming to Connecticut 16 years ago. “It was a right-to-work state, where teachers really didn’t have any rights. In effect, Arizona had a teachers union without any teeth.” Bergman described low wages and large class sizes. “I tried everything to make it work—coaching, tutoring, waiting tables, working as an adjunct professor while holding down a job teaching a class of anywhere from 32 to 41 students. Here in Connecticut, we have a very strong union, and I feel privileged to be a part of it. It’s vitally important that teachers get involved and have input into policy, agenda, and goals.”
Timothy Whipples, an eleven-year veteran elementary school teacher from Stonington, acknowledges that in his first few years as a teacher he was not active in his union.
“I was just trying to survive and didn’t want to seem ‘political’ in a job I needed.” Soon, however, Whipples realized that getting active would strengthen his position as well as his profession. “As a building rep, I want to hear what’s happening at the state level. I want to know what I’m responsible for and how I can best advocate for my teachers. By going to meetings, I feel more informed. We just went through contract negotiations, and I knew what was happening. I felt empowered.”
Also preparing for contract negotiations is local President Greg Perry, a teacher at Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich, one of CEA’s three member charter schools.
“Summer Leadership offers great professional development. This is my third year. Last year, I did presidents’ training, which helped me get staff involved in advocating for our profession. There are things coming down the pike from state government and the Supreme Court, but we don’t always know what to do—so I’m funneling information from these workshops, Association emails, and the CEA Advisor to my teachers. I find coming here that you get educated on the issues, you make connections, and you benefit from the fellowship—being around people who care about our kids and our schools.”
This year’s Summer Leadership Conference runs from July 31 to August 2.