WEAC Spotlight on Locals – Elmbrook Education Association

WEAC Vice President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, right, delivers the WEAC Strong Local Affiliate Certificate to Elmbrook Education Association leaders Marion Defnet and Rick Ziolkowski.

By WEAC Vice President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen

“We are a strong local because we have a strong network. Our well-established relationships with our colleagues, the administration, and the school community give us a voice,” explained Rick Ziolkowski, fourth grade teacher with a specialty in math.  “Our colleagues also believe in us and the work that we do. Every year, we recertify with about 80 percent of the educators in the district supporting us.”

Marion Defnet, first grade teacher, emphasized that point saying, “educators in Elmbrook are thankful for what we do.  We have a voice on issues that matter like our compensation system that has seen changes, in part, because we have provided important feedback for improvement.” When I asked Marion how they maintain that voice, she said, “our local gives a paper and pencil survey of climate in the district once a year to all staff. Our questions are built from our local’s listening sessions, our building representatives administer the survey, and educators are honest with us in their feedback. They tell us what is going well and what could make the district better for students and educators.”

“Our collaborative approach to leadership is what makes us strong,” Sherri Michalowski, an eighth grade social studies teacher with 30 years of experience in the district, told me. “As leaders, we work closely together and specialize in our role based upon the needs of our local, our skills, and our interests.  While one of us is listed as the local President, we don’t rely heavily on the title as it takes the pressure off of one individual.” The Elmbrook Education Association works to broadly distribute their work to maximize their influence, relying on Building Representatives, passionate members and retirees to serve on committees and attend meetings within the school district.

In terms of successes, “because we are broadly represented, we are able to affect positive change like seeing improvements in our compensation model.  In the current climate, some of our educators are uncomfortable speaking up about issues that affect students, and they understand that their voices can be channeled through us” according to Rick. The Elmbrook Education Association takes this responsibility very seriously and listens carefully to the needs of their members and the impact on the students they work with every day.

Sherri said that one success of the Elmbrook Education Association has been their organizing to share their voices.  “We maintain a presence at all major meetings and on committees in the district, so that we are in the loop on decisions made in our buildings, across the district, and throughout the community. We hold roundtables with members and potential members when issues surface.  For example, we are currently working with all traveling teachers to share their perspective on the schedule and its impact on their day and their students.”

Rick ended our conversation by saying, “If you want to see change, act locally.  By staying engaged and informed, we help to educate our colleagues and the district community about what is happening in our schools. Teachers are closest to the students in our schools, and often they have the best ideas for solutions. Our role is to ensure that those good ideas are shared and, ultimately, implemented.”

Sherri told me, “I am a leader in the Elmbrook Education Association because my union is my professional organization. It provides a voice for teachers who are doing great work with their students every day.”

Read all of Peggy’s ‘Spotlight On Locals’ columns at weac.org/Spotlight.