Monday, July 28, 2008

Association 101

You're in the largest professional union in the United States. Knowing what that means can make your job and your paycheck better. But only if you get involved.

By Cynthia Kopkowski

Ever faked a knowing nod when a veteran teacher starts talking about being in a "right-to-work state," and you're not really sure what she's talking about? Does "collective bargaining" just make you think of your third-period class trying to get out of having homework? As a new educator, it can seem easier to teach physics to first-graders than to learn about your own union, much less become an active and involved member of it. But you need to do all three—get in, get educated, and get active. Your committment has to go beyond just paying dues. But remember, the payoff is big. Check out our Association 101 glossary to understand some terms that are vital to Association work.

"I'm very involved in how I think the school should look," says Lawrence Garcia, 35, a middle school math teacher in Thornton, Colorado. But he knows he can't do it alone.

"Teachers sometimes feel alone and scared of what the principal will say if they speak up as a union member," says Samone Thomas, 36, a seventh-grade language arts teacher in Wichita, Kansas. "But that means you don't know you have all these thousands of people behind you working to make things better."

Having a basic understanding of your union, then building on it with personal involvement, are the first steps toward better working conditions, pay, and benefits.

So if you're ready to find out more about what you're getting for your investment (besides this magazine!), and how you can reap additional rewards through your involvement, here's a primer on what Association membership means. (First tip: Your membership means you belong to the local, state, and national Association.)

Help on the Job—If you want to become a better teacher, you're off to a good start. The Association offers its member teachers advice, training, and other assistance to boost skills in the classroom, including teacher evaluation, mentoring, and tools to help prepare for certification tests. NEA even has a Teacher Toolkit ( with free basic tools to help you handle class rosters, daily attendance, and behavior and intervention logs. And the NEA Foundation provides teachers with grants to get their projects off the ground (

A Strong Professional Network— There's lots of formal assistance from the Association. But don't forget that you're also plugged into a network of people who have been there, done that. They know the kids, the administrators, and the parents, and they can help you do your best and avoid the minefields. You're on their team and they're on yours. If you don't know who the Association members in your building are, call your local Association office and they'll point you in the right direction.

Protection—Experienced advocates called UniServ directors advise or represent members in employment-related matters. If a principal unfairly accuses you of being ineffective, the UniServ director is the one to call on. Plus, if a legal issue arises, you've got at least $1 million in liability insurance as a member of the Association. Now, while you're in your first few years of teaching (usually three) you're on probation and don't have many of the protections you will get later on. But you do have rights, and the Association staff at your local office can tell you about them, while helping you avoid getting into a situation in which you would have to fight for your job.

Wage and Benefits Watchdogs—An experienced Association staff helps the people sitting down at the bargaining table to fight for your pay increases and benefits. They do research and plan public relations campaigns to make the public understand the importance of properly paying educators. There's also training offered to help individual members sharpen their salary and benefits bargaining skills. Plus, there are top-notch lobbyists fighting for Association members' rights in Congress, the state legislature, and the school board.

Fighting for Fair Funding—Those lobbyists working with legislators on better education policy are also making impassioned arguments for improved school funding. They let legislators know about the needs, interests, and priorities of teachers. For example, you're not the only one talking about what's wrong with the so-called No Child Left Behind law. NEA lobbyists are fighting to get the law changed the way you want to see it reformed.

Extra Benefits, Fun Perks—You can get insurance discounts, cheaper movie tickets, and coupons for stores like Target, Ann Taylor, and Best Buy through NEA Member Benefits (

Understanding more about what your Association does can't be the end of your involvement though. A strong and healthy union relies on the participation of all of its members, which means becoming more aware of the issues that affect you and your colleagues and taking action.

As a union member, "I'm very involved in how I think the school should look," says Lawrence Garcia, 35, a middle school math teacher in Thornton, Colorado. But he can't do it alone. "If I'm going to make a change here, nobody downtown will listen to me if I'm by myself."

Here's how members like Garcia say they need your help: Consider becoming a building representative, who serves as a liaison between teachers and support professionals and the administration.

"Every organization is dependent on the new members coming in," says Amy Murphy, a 26-year-old teacher in Tampa, Florida. She became a building rep during her second year as a teacher. "I was scared to pieces, but decided I wanted to be involved," says Murphy. "As I'm learning more and more it gets easier."

You can also go to school board meetings and use the public comment portion of the session to talk about issues affecting the classroom or teachers.

Register to vote and exercise that vote for pro-public education candidates. Donate to the NEA Fund for Children and Public Education (see "Anything Else?" page 34) to help elect those candidates. Call, email, or visit with elected officials in your city and state to tell them your priorities.

"Lobbying gave me a chance to actually stand up for what I believe in and affect the course of education in our state," says Jana Thomas, 24, a high school Spanish and English teacher in Republic, Missouri.

Through involvement—taking on issues that affect both the classroom and the contract—a community of educators grows stronger. "In your first year it feels like you're alone on the planet, but this Association gives you a community," Thomas says. "You can talk to and help each other."