Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Remarks made to the Longwood SVEA Chapter on April 19, 2010

Last night (April 19) I attended a dinner hosted by the Longwood SVEA chapter at Longwood University in Farmville, VA. The students were celebrating the 70th anniversary of their charter as a student chapter of the Virginia Education Association. As a 1975 alumnus of Longwood, I was proud and privileged to bring remarks to the small group of future educators and their sponsor and special guests.

I thought I would include the remarks that I made to that group in my blog. The remarks include a little history and a bit of reflection on the importance of collective action which is the life blood of our organization.

As I post these remarks, I am preparing for our 2010 VEA Convention which will be convening in Virginia Beach in just a few days. I will return to post reflections on that meeting sometime next week.

Until then....


Remarks to the Longwood SVEA on the Commemoration of the
70th Anniversary of Their Charter

It is with great pleasure that I join you this evening. As you know, I am a proud alumnus of Longwood. I graduated in 1975, the year before Longwood became coed. I lived in Curry Hall, and I worked in the library on the student work program while I earned my B. A. degree in English with teaching endorsements in secondary English and PK-12 Library Science.

While I was here at Longwood, I did not belong to the SVEA, I’m sorry to say. I don’t know if it is because I was too buried in my studies to be aware of a chapter or if no one asked me or why I was just oblivious to its existence, but oblivious I was. I did not learn about the VEA until I got my first teaching job as a librarian in Franklin County, Virginia, and a representative of the FCEA brought me my application and indicated that she would pick it up at the end of the day. She never mentioned any benefits and she sure didn’t mention anything about dues. I tell people that it was November before I realized that I was paying monthly dues for that membership.

I didn’t get active in the VEA until the early 1980’s. I had moved to Roanoke County by then and was working as a library media specialist in a small elementary school. We were going through some tough economic times not dissimilar to what has been happening this past year although admittedly not as bad, and our Board of Supervisors was eager to cut costs in order to balance an otherwise out of balance budget without increasing taxes.

One of their strategies included trying to turn teachers and support personnel against one another. We all received a survey asking us to rate in order the people and programs we would be willing to see eliminated. The list included art, music, physical education, librarians, etc. Ironically, because of a change in the law that mandated librarians in any school with 300 or more students, they shouldn’t have been including librarians in the list, but that is how thoughtless they were being.

As a result of their insensitive and ill informed actions, my local association, the Roanoke County Education Association, decided to attend a Board of Supervisors meeting in mass to register our concerns about the budget. As more and more people indicated their intentions to attend the meeting, the venue of the meeting was moved from the regular Board Room to the Salem Coliseum. I don’t know how many people showed up that night, and they weren’t all teachers, but most of our RCEA members were there in support of our local president, and I would say it was well over 700 people there.

I learned a lesson that night about the power of the collective whole as opposed to the lone individual. If you want to affect change in anything—the political realm, the social realm, the educational realm—you need the power of the collective whole to make it happen. Every once in a while a charismatic spokesperson can show up and give voice to the collective—like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama—but unless those individuals are striking a chord with the masses so that they show up to support the messengers, the message falls flat, and nothing happens.

It is because of the power of the collective whole that the VEA is as strong as it is--and likewise the NEA.

Most of you are probably not aware of the history of your state and national affiliates, and I thought it might be fitting tonight to share just a little history lesson since you are commemorating the 70th anniversary of your SVEA Chapter.

The NEA got its start in the summer of 1857 when 43 educators gathered in Philadelphia. At that time, ten states had state organizations, but as there was no unified voice at the national level, there was a call to have a unified group work to bring the issues that faced the nation as a whole to the nation’s attention. Ironically, during this time in history, learning to read and write was a luxury reserved mostly for the fairly wealthy and somewhat privileged. In fact, at that time, it was actually a crime to for a child of color to be taught to read and write, and especially in the southern states like Virginia, students of color who attempted to learn to read and write did so at their own peril.

Don’t think that the NEA was totally enlightened as it formed. It was very much a product of its time, and when the NEA was first founded, membership was restricted to “gentlemen” only. The two women who showed up for the initial meeting in Philadelphia were allowed to be honorary members, but it would be nine more years before women would be allowed to have equal membership in the NEA.

Unfortunately, the issues that faced the nation’s early teachers were not so dissimilar from the issues that still face us today. Salaries have always been a concern along with working conditions and debates over the proper teaching methods and the type of curriculum that should be delivered. Teachers were often forced to work in isolation in one-room schools in their rural communities without the benefit of even the most rudimentary creature comforts. Teacher contracts of that era often required that the female teachers live with a respected family in the community, remain unmarried, avoid any appearance of personal impropriety, and be forced to resign if and when she decided to marry.

By the time the NEA turned 100 in 1957, it had witnessed many changes, not the least of which was the landmark decision that became one of the most important events in education and civil rights history. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ordered the desegregation of the nation’s schools, reversing its “separate but equal” doctrine and opening the door to a new era in public education. You are probably aware that Prince Edward County played an important role in that seminal case, and this week, the Robert Russa Moton Museum will be celebrating and commemorating the speech made by 16-year-old Barbara Johns who led a walk out on April 23, 1951 in protest to the abominable conditions that she and her classmates were being subjected to because of the neglect of the local school board.

Now let me back up a bit, and talk about the VEA and its history for a minute.

The Virginia Education Association was founded as the Educational Association of Virginia at a statewide meeting that was held on December 29, 1863. The meeting was held in the basement of the First Baptist Church in Petersburg. It’s mission was, “By all suitable means, to promote the educational welfare of Virginia and of the whole country.”

Among the VEA’s early accomplishments were the promotion of sound educational practices, boosting passage of a statewide minimum salary schedule, and supporting a sound retirement system for teachers.

While segregated public schools persisted in Virginia well into the 1960s, all that began to change eventually because of Brown v. Board of Education, and in 1967, the VEA and the all black teachers association, the Virginia Teachers Association, merged, becoming one unified education association.

In 1973, VEA members voted to unify with the National Education Association and became one of the 51 state affiliates that currently make up the NEA.

Things that we at the VEA consider proud accomplishments include successful campaigns to significantly increase the state’s level of public school funding, enhancements in the teacher retirement system, and legal victories preventing a school board from firing a teacher for becoming pregnant.

In these tough economic times, we are fighting setbacks in the areas of teacher salaries and retirement. We are also finding ourselves facing an increasingly hostile General Assembly who seems bent on ignoring that one of their fundamental duties is to seek to ensure a high quality education for all children of school age in the commonwealth. It is the job of the VEA and its members to remind our legislators of their responsibility, and we do that every single day.

We cannot do it alone, however, and that’s where our members—members like you—come in. We need our individual members to get involved and engaged in a meaningful way in the debate and discourse about the importance of public education in this country. Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond has recently written a book, The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future.

Dr. Hammond contends, and I agree with her, that what has made our country great to date has been our commitment to giving everyone an opportunity to succeed. A quality education is the key to the future, and if we don’t provide a quality education to every child in the country regardless of his or her color, race, gender, ethnicity, or zip code, we will surely decline into a country that trails India, China and other nations that value education in this flat world in which we live.

I am already concerned that a college education is becoming inaccessible to the average middle class student. I was just reflecting the other day on the fact that were I graduating from high school now instead of in 1971, I might not have been able to afford to go to college at all. I was able to get my first master’s degree with the help and financial assistance of my school division, and many of those benefits have been drying up in recent years as well.

We live in tough times, but as I hope you see from the brief history that I have shared with you this evening, we have always lived in tough times. It is only because of the rosy lens of glasses that allow us to romanticize the past that we seem to forget that every generation has had its share of challenges and accompanying opportunities. When the NEA was being formed, the country was being torn apart by the pre-Civil War debates that raged throughout every state. We survived that. When your own Longwood SVEA Chapter was being formed in 1939, the winds of war were blowing and World War II was not far behind. The 1950’s saw the injustice of Jim Crow laws that sought to keep a whole people subjected to second-class citizen status, and the 1960’s saw that change on its head.

We continue to feel the effects of the instructional debates that erupted in the 1970’s over humanism, and in 1983, the “Nation at Risk” report came out that once again set the education world in a tailspin.

The 1990’s in Virginia saw the emergence of the Standards of Learning program and testing and accountability movements took permanent hold.

Today we are struggling with the residual effects of an economy struggling to regain its bearings after the worst recession in decades. We are also continuing a hot debate over what was wrong with No Child Left Behind and how the reauthorization of ESEA could be used to fix many of those problems if only someone in the Department of Education would listen to the practitioners instead of the politicians. And we are, I am sad to say, still struggling with the issue of race in just as real a way today as we were in the 1960’s. We have made much progress, but we have much yet to do before we can claim to be a country that truly provides for equality and equity for all of its citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.

And so you are experiencing an exciting time. You have many opportunities before you and you have many choices to make as well. I pray that you will each find success in whatever you endeavor to undertake. My simple request would be that whatever you undertake, you remember that you are not alone. You are part of a social fabric that makes up your local community, your state, and the nation. You can be a part of the progress or you can stand by and let others do it for you. I hope you will decide to get involved. It is not only your future that is at stake—it is the future of our state and our great country.

Thank You.