By Pat Schmidt
WEAC Region 10 / Retired
When I first started teaching 40 years ago almost every classroom had a poster that said “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Well, I’m here to tell you that over the years since then, I can proudly tell you that everything I need to know I learned from my professional organizations, the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the National Education Association.
Here are the things I learned:
1. I learned that through my professional organizations I could become a leader. I think it’s important that you know up front that I have always been a joiner. I have joined a lot of organizations in my life: the Future Homemakers of America, the Music Educators National Conference, the American Federation of Musicians. But it was through WEAC that I was able to attend workshops and seminars that trained me not only to be an officer in my association, but an advocate for children and public education. That training has taken me to workshops all over the country and to represent our students and education professionals in the State Capitol in Madison and the halls of Congress in Washington, DC.
2. I learned that the money I spent on union membership was an investment in myself. Yes, when I first started teaching I didn’t have any choice but to join the union. So what did I do? I became involved so I could see how they were spending my money. I encourage you to find your voice in how your association is run and how the funds are spent. In my association we spend our local dues on scholarships for graduating seniors, for leadership training for our members, sending our members to state and national representaitve assemblies, and in supporting our local sports teams. What does your local and region do with the money you give them?
3. I learned that if you walk out, your eventually have to walk back in again. If things don’t go the way you want them to go, don’t give up. Find another way to fight! In WEAC we are learning that we can make a difference in local elections. We were successful in passing almost all of the referendums that our members were involved in, and were able to elect pro-education candidates to school boards in elections where our members were actively participating.
4. I learned how to be an advocate for children. One of our WEAC goals is to empower educators to become advocates for public education. There are so many ways that you can stand up for children. You can cyberlobby. What? You don’t know how to cyberlobby? Ask your leadership about how to participate using this powerful tool to let your voice be heard in how our students can best succeed in your classroom. Remember: you are the expert! Legislators of both parties are listening to us, but we can’t shrink from our responsibility to support our students in and out of the classroom. I used to scoff at the phrase “I am the NEA” until I learned that to many of our legislators I actually am the NEA, and if I don’t speak up for my students, who will? Legislators do not know what is happening in your classrooms unless you tell them.
5. I learned that I have lifelong friends who will stand with me. The friendships that I have made as a member of my union are ones that have come out of struggle and are stronger because of it. In Wautoma we have created a wall-to-wall union where teachers, educational support professionals, and bus drivers all belong to one unified group and this gives us greater support and a stronger voice for our students. It is so much fun to participate in activities with all of our professionals standing together. For example, in October we went to Random Lake to participate in the Outreach to Teach event sponsored by WEAC Region 9, which is our WEA Student organization, to support our future educators in renovating the schools in that community. I can just imagine the look on the faces of those students when they came back to a new school on Monday morning after we have made positive changes to their school environment.
In closing I want to tell you about another group that I was a part of. As past-president of the Waushara Women’s Bowling Association, our group was struggling to maintain members. Sound familiar? One of our members wrote a poem titled “The Member,” and I have never forgotten the last line. She wrote: “Do you sit on the sidelines and murmur loud and long? Are you an active member or do you just belong?”
Our WEAC priority for this year has been to Recruit, Retain, and Empower our members. So, what are you waiting for? I’m waiting for you! Come join me as together we change the world for public education!