Madison teacher Mary Rao knows just how important a strong union is because, when she began her career in Fairfax County, Virginia things were very different than here in Connecticut. “I don’t remember meeting anyone from the union. I belonged to our union, but the union couldn’t do much because we had few rights. When I started teaching in Madison, Connecticut it was so nice to meet our union leaders and learn how our union was there to help teachers in need. I didn’t understand how strong and supportive a union could be until I came to Connecticut.”
After her third year teaching in Madison the Brown Middle School math and science teacher went to a contract ratification meeting and asked how she could get more involved. Someone suggested she become a building rep and, nearly 20 years later, she’s still a building rep and also serves on the union’s executive board.
“We are all the union—some members forget that and I have to remind them: you are the union,” says Rao.
No problem is too small to help out with, if it’s important to a member, Rao says. “I focus on being an active listener and addressing everyone’s concerns. More members need to remember that we’re here to help them. Come see us before you try to tackle a problem yourself.”
In addition to working as a building rep, Rao also serves as the Madison Education Association’s (MEA) treasurer and membership chair.
“I make sure everyone’s membership forms are up-to-date, I send the updated info to CEA as soon as I can, and ensure that everyone gets their membership cards,” says Rao. “I make sure our teachers realize membership is important and we’re only as strong as our members.”
As treasurer, Rao makes sure every single MEA dollar is accounted for and fills out all of the required state and federal tax forms.
Keeping track of all of that paperwork requires a lot of late nights, Rao says, but adds, “I make the time to do it because it’s important.”
“There’s no job too big or too small for Mary, she’s really extraordinary,” says CEA UniServ Rep Gloria Dimon. “Anything you ask her to do, she pitches in to help. She’s very organized, she’s persistent, and she doesn’t give up on any project she takes on.”
Dimon says that Rao stays calm even during busy and stressful times. This past fall the MEA was engaged in a time-consuming organizing effort, yet Rao was also able to get all new teachers signed up in a timely fashion.
Rao’s advice for her colleagues: “The best thing you can possibly do for your career is to be an active part of your union.”
Sometimes teachers don’t realize how important the union is until there’s an incident, and then they don’t know what to do.
“Make sure you’re aware of your rights,” Rao recommends. “It’s important to get to know your contract. The more informed you are the better it is for all of us.”