By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President
The passion that members of the South Milwaukee Education Association have for their students, their schools, and their union was obvious when I sat down with them to discuss the strength of their association. “We recruit our best and brightest to be our leaders and the faces of our local association,” Heather Hanson told me. Heather is a 17-year social studies teacher, born and raised in South Milwaukee, who is serving as a Co-President of the SMEA. Heather works alongside Brittany Jadin, her Co-President in her seventh year of teaching, who was recruited as a second-year teacher to join in the work of her local association.
The South Milwaukee Education Association is a wall-to-wall local, which means that it merged its teacher unit with its secretary and paraprofessional units, back in 2011. Joanna Rizzotto, former SMEA President and longtime leader, said, “In addition to teachers, the secretaries and paraprofessional units were also marginalized after changes to the law.” It was a logical step to merge the groups to become one as the South Milwaukee Education Association. Gail Kablau, SMEA President for the secretarial staff, said, “If you are not working all together as a group, then you are not doing everything to strengthen your local association.”
Gail shared with me the history of merging the units, crediting past SMEA President Rachel Swick who said that they would be stronger together. While the state took a divide-and-conquer approach, the SMEA decided to work to unite on behalf of the students. This required Constitution and Bylaw adjustments which were then voted on by the membership, a modified leadership structure, and a new approach to move forward as a team. Gail said, “I know that I have the support of a strong team, and that is important in doing this work.”
The team approach to leadership and a lack of hierarchy in the units is important to the association’s strength. Amy Pinkos, President of the paraprofessional aides, was recruited by Gail. Amy said, “It is a collaborative approach to helping our students and our members. We meet monthly and share ideas for needs across our buildings and across the district.” Amy noted that the help and support she receives from her fellow SMEA leaders makes her unafraid to be in her role. “We help each other.”
It was clear that there is no one SMEA way; the association’s mission remains the same, and the leadership works to “be their strongest self” according to Heather Hanson. Heather also said, “Many of our secretaries and paraprofessionals live in the community and have great relationships with the families and community.” Gail reminded me that, “We all work for kids and we must keep our focus there.”
The SMEA has been and continues to be strategic in its recruitment of leadership for the local because the leaders believe in having their highest quality educators, paraprofessional aides and secretaries as the face of the association, advocating for decisions that are good for their students and their colleagues.
The South Milwaukee Education Association understands that as the profession changes and new educators have different perspectives and needs, they need to be brought into the work of the SMEA. SMEA leader Joanna Rizotto organized a group of early career educators called COME Forward, which stands for the Caucus of Millennial Educators. Twenty-five members strong, COME Forward members meet regularly to share their experiences as a cohort and a support group to share their needs and concerns that are unique to their experiences. “Millennial educators are sometimes intimidated about knowledge that they don’t know,” Joanna said. These gatherings are learning about the history of the association and education and supporting one another. Co-President Brittany Jadin shared that “COME Forward has been instrumental in providing support, guidance, and conversation that directly meets the needs of newer-to-the-profession educators.”
SMEA is working with millennial educators, most of whom don’t want to teach from a script, in ways to take on professional issues collectively. These conversations are paying off two, three and four years later when these educators understand that having varied voices working on issues that matter to them can change the future of the profession.
Joanna, from her role as a past SMEA President and Region 7 leader, continues to champion the profession of education, working to influence conversations even more broadly on issues facing all of us. You can check out Joanna and other voices on education related matters through this link to the Educators Amplified podcast, which includes an interview with Joanna.