Educators standing shoulder to shoulder, hands in the air, signs held aloft: that’s the image that springs to mind (and pops up in Internet searches) when we consider teachers’ unions.
“Rallies and press conferences, that’s the outwardly visible work of the union,” CEA President Kate Dias told more than 400 educators gathered at Foxwoods this morning for CEA’s Summer Conference, an annual two-day professional development and networking event that brought together local union presidents, their leadership teams, aspiring educators, and teachers from every corner of the state at various points in their careers.
“I’m really excited to have so many people here today from such a diverse population of teachers,” Dias said, noting, “So much of what we really do as a union is behind the scenes. It’s contract negotiations. It’s support and care for colleagues. It’s conversations with administrators about school climate issues outside of our contract.” She paused. “Why do we do it?”
She explained that unions exist to agitate for improvement and make a difference not only for today’s students and colleagues but also those to come.
“Our work matters,” she said. “If you think about what teaching was like decades ago, talk to Bridgeport teachers who had to strike for us in the seventies. The sacrifices we make matter now and for future generations of teachers and children. Our union exists to take care of educators. Because your union has your back, you can do more for your students; you can do what you do best.”
Dias also spoke of the power of unions, noting, “Power is not a dirty word; we don’t apologize for it. It means you have a say. It means you are valued for your expertise. And power gets exponentially bigger when we share it and empower each other.”
Dias introduced keynote speaker Laura Hutchinson, a Hamden native and WTNH Channel 8 morning news anchor who hails from a family of teachers.
“It’s such an honor to be here for so many reasons,” Hutchinson said, adding, “I so appreciate what you’re doing here today. It’s August 1, it’s a top 10 day outside, and you could be at the beach. But you want to better our classrooms. It’s because of a teacher that lives change. It’s because of many teachers that I’m here today.”
Hutchinson recalled the third grade teacher whose observations and actions made a key difference in her life.
“He noticed that I struggled with reading comprehension,” she said. “I was painfully shy and scared to be called on. My teacher took the time to notice, he put together some resources, he reached out to my parents, and he invested in me. I feel so grateful that he noticed my struggle and got help. Thanks to him and so many other teachers, I now read your morning news. I read current events on my phone. I read to my children every night.”
As the parent of two small children, she added, “I realize teachers are not babysitters. You are with our children when they are awake, alert, and capable of taking in new info and learning. You broaden their horizons and inspire them to try things they may not have known existed. Because of a teacher I learned how to sew a pillow, cook a meal, dissect a frog, making a lightbulb, and build a ramp. Your work is important, and it’s important that we work on change, because you need greater supports, bigger paychecks, and more resources. It’s important that we get it right.” (Speaking of getting it right, Channel 8’s segment “What’s Right with Schools” sends news crews to various districts to illustrate the positive influence of public schools. To arrange a visit to your district, email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Later today, Dias will make a surprise announcement to Summer Conference attendees that will be made public tomorrow. Meanwhile, she shared three wishes with conference participants.
“My wishes for you,” she said, “are that you meet someone new, from a district unlike yours who teaches something you don’t. My wish is that you learn something new and teach something new.”
Meeting new teachers, she said, has enabled her to be a more powerful spokesperson for her colleagues and profession.
“I take your experiences and your stories and I bring them to decisionmakers,” she said. “I am always contemplating ways of elevating teachers and uplifting our profession. You help me do that.”