“As you know, many groups out there in the wider world, don’t like unions but they also don’t like pensions. They’re out to cut down pensions and undermine them in whatever way they can,” CEA Executive Director Donald Williams told CEA-Retired members at their annual fall conference this morning.
Luckily Connecticut active and retired teachers understand how important it is to have their voices heard in the political process and turned out in record numbers for last year’s state elections—electing many pro-public education candidates, including State Treasurer Shawn Wooden, one of the speakers at today’s conference.
“Last year we elected a treasurer who successfully fought to reamortize the Connecticut Teachers’ Retirement Fund while preserving pension benefits,” said CEA-Retired President William Murray.
“I’ve always believed the state has a duty to honor its promise to workers and tax payers,” Wooden told retirees. “I wouldn’t be standing before you today without the many teachers who made me who I am today. I want you to know you have a treasurer who respects your service and is willing to fight for your retirement security.”
Wooden said he has heard concerns from some teachers that the state might replace the current pension system with a defined contribution system (403b/401k) for active teachers.
“Let me be very clear, this is not something I would ever support,” he said. “Shifting to a defined contribution system would make it nearly impossible to support pension benefits for those currently in the system.”
Saying that there are multiple signs Connecticut’s economy is improving, the treasurer added that he plans to continue to fight for teachers. “In the upcoming legislative session I will strongly advocate to increase the likelihood that in a good year retired teachers can see a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) above one percent.”
“Our work is not done, but because of Shawn Wooden and his work this past legislative session, the teachers pension system has been taken out of the bullseye, and that’s a tremendous step forward,” said Williams.
“Electing education-friendly candidates including Shawn Wooden has been crucial to ensuring a stable future for teachers’ pensions,” said CEA President Jeff Leake. “That’s why we all need to stay involved in the political process.”
Leake thanked retirees for their involvement with CEA and reminded them that their continued political advocacy will be essential with next year’s election.
“We need to make some changes in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Right from the White House to the Department of Education. If any of you are sitting here thinking, ‘Should I be involved in politics?’ Yes, yes you should.”
Retirees also heard from Connecticut Teacher of the Year Sheena Graham, whose inspirational story of her own journey from student to teacher is a tribute to the power of teachers in a child’s life.
“This is now my 37th year teaching, and I am still smiling,” the Bridgeport Harding High music teacher said.
After some early negative experiences with school, Graham said she resorted to quietly doing all of her schoolwork, trying to remain invisible to her teachers.
“Fifth grade was when my invisible shield stopped working,” Graham said. “Mrs. McGrath was my superwoman. She accepted me for who I was and wouldn’t give up on me.”
Mrs. McGrath wasn’t afraid to let her students see her full humanity, from telling jokes to crying when the class’ pet hamster died.
The importance of sharing and connecting with students was a lesson Graham took to heart and exemplifies in her own classroom. Graham has lost a number of family members under tragic circumstances, experiences that she says shattered her but didn’t break her, and she doesn’t shy away from sharing those experiences with her students.
“I share my life experiences with my students because they are faced with challenges and struggles every day, and they see their teachers as being people who have it all together,” Graham says. “Life is about choices, and I let my students know that despite what they’re going through, I still have high expectations for them.”