Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Back to School Time

I was allowed to speak at the Grayson County Convocation last Friday. They are already getting ready to go back to school as are many of our colleagues out in the far southwestern portion of our Commonwealth.

I delivered the following speech, and it has received so many positive comments and thank you's that I decided perhaps it would make for a good post today. So here goes:

Good Morning:

It is an honor and a privilege for me to be with you this morning.

It is hard for me to believe that you are already getting ready to start school. Time seems to be moving faster and faster, and it is hard to keep track of where it has gone.

For me, back to school time is such an exciting time. We are unusual, I believe, in that as a group we get the chance to start fresh—from scratch, so to speak—every single year. There is no other job that I know of where you get to put a punctuation mark on one year, take a breath and a break, and then start “fresh” like we do. Just think of it. We get a “do over” every year! We get to start with a totally fresh slate. And that goes for our students as well.

You are about to embark on a new year that is going to be unlike any other year you’ve ever had. And for the first day, at least, we all—teachers, administrators, and students alike—have hope that it is going to be our best year ever. We may be disabused of that notion by the end of the first day, but we all start out, don’t we, with extremely high hopes?

I have always loved the first day of school. It didn’t matter if it was the first day as a student or as a teacher. Everyone is so excited. Parents are taking pictures at the bus stop, kids are bouncing off the bus at school fresh faced and ready for a new year. The class rosters are neatly posted on the doors and everyone feels a sense of anticipation. The excitement and energy on campus is palpable. Every new year brings with it a sense of promise and hope and a whole host of possibilities.

And that brings me to something that I would like to share with you. It is a sad story, but it is an important one, so I hope you will bear with me.

I learned this week of the tragic and untimely death of one of our VEA members. Her name was Dawn Reddick and she was only 29 years old. She had been teaching in Charlottesville, VA since 2007, and she taught 3rd grade at Clark Elementary School.

Last Friday night (July 29, 2011), Dawn and three others were shot in a random drive-by shooting in Newark, New Jersey. Dawn died the next morning from her wounds. It has been reported that Dawn attempted to shield a 7 year-old-child who was standing nearby when she was shot. There are no suspects and there is apparently no motive. Dawn was certainly not the target. She was an innocent bystander killed by a senseless act of random violence. An act that is all too common in our country these days and one that has become so commonplace that we rarely take note of it anymore…unless it involves one of our own.

With your permission, I would like to take just a moment of silence to think about Dawn and her family, her students, and her school colleagues in Charlottesville. PAUSE

Thank you.

The reason I wanted to tell you about Dawn is that she was by all accounts, an exemplary teacher. Parents of the students she had this past year reported that their kids had decided that this was the best year they had ever had and they couldn’t imagine ever having a better one…and they were only in third grade!

What a testament to Dawn and the impact she had on her students. What a loss to them and to the teaching profession and the countless students she might have taught in the future. So young and struck down so senselessly.

I wanted to share that with you because I want you to imagine for a moment what kind of year you would need to create for your students this year in order for them to say that it was the BEST YEAR THEY HAD EVER HAD and they couldn’t imagine it GETTING ANY BETTER THAN THAT? What sort of atmosphere would you need to create? What sort of climate and culture and personal relationships would you need to build and foster? What ingredients would you need to bring to the year in order for YOUR students to declare at the end of the year that they couldn’t imagine a better year?

Don’t you want your students to feel that way about you and about the year they are about to have? I know I would. What a legacy for such a young teacher to have created. I am sorry that I won’t ever have a chance to meet Dawn Reddick, but I hope to carry her story around with me. She embodied the best of what we all have to give…and we need to honor her memory by trying to make this our best year ever regardless of what we are teaching or who our students are.

And because we at the VEA want this to be your best year ever, I want to offer the resources and support that the VEA and the GCEA have to offer to provide the kind of help hat you need in order to be successful.

You know, sometimes teaching can be a lonely enterprise. We tend to feel pretty isolated a lot of the time, and recently, we have felt like we are in heated battle, haven’t we? You can’t turn on a TV without hearing some reference some way some how to how public education in this country has gone to the dogs and teachers are responsible. Moreover, we are blamed for being greedy because we have high salaries and rich benefits and a pension that is the envy of everyone. What a load of….bunk!!!

I am sorry, but is there any person in this room who feels that you are being grossly overpaid? That your benefits are totally out of line with the job you perform everyday? That you are going to be so rich off of your Virginia Retirement System that you can retire to an island in the Caribbean and never worry about money again? Well, that’s the picture that is being painted of you, and it is high time that you help start to set the record straight.

Most Virginia educators have not had a raise for 3 to 4 years. Most of us have had to pay MORE for benefits because what our school divisions offer doesn’t cover the full costs. And your VRS benefit? If you go out with full service after a 30 + year career, you will receive about half of your annual salary based on your highest salary average for the last 36 months. I doubt that any of you are going to be taking that and retiring without a care.

What you can do, however, is retire with the knowledge that because you took reduced salaries over the years and because you gave your professional life to public education, your retirement benefit won’t expire before you do. The difference between what we currently have and what the Governor and some pretty powerful legislators in Richmond want to do is that we are currently covered for life. If they have their way, we will be switching from a defined benefit plan—one which offers a lifetime benefit—to a defined contribution plan where you will be expected to put in more of your own money and then when the money runs out…well, good luck to you.

You know, people often say to me that they aren’t members of the VEA because of different and assorted reasons. They don’t understand the benefits of membership. They don’t think they will ever need the liability insurance and there are certainly cheaper ways to get that, and we know that. We also get beaten up a lot because of our political activity. I even once said—before I knew any better—that I didn’t think teachers should be “political.” I thought we should be above the “dirtiness of politics.” And, I know that some of our competitor organizations like to say that they offer the same benefits as VEA without the political component. That’s not necessarily true, by the way, but they like to say it.

The only trouble is that everything you do in your classroom from day one is tied to some sort of political decision. Do you think SOL’s weren’t or aren’t driven by politics? Think again. Textbook and technology adoption? The length of your school day, what is allowed to be taught and who is allowed to teach it? All driven by political considerations. Licensure and evaluation policies? Political. Salaries and benefits? Your pension???? Definitely political and becoming more and more so by the minute.

So, tell me, why WOULDN’T we want to be involved in politics if it drives what we do professionally every single day in every way?

Don’t you want to have some semblance of control over you professional destiny? Then get involved in the GCEA. Learn what is going on. Learn how you can help.

You know, I also often hear the question, “What’s the VEA doing about…” and you can fill in the blank. Salaries, benefits, pensions, testing, accountability, and the list goes on. I always want to say, well, tell me, what are YOU doing because we are all in this together. I take my marching orders from my members when we have our annual meeting every April. Our Delegate Assembly sets VEA policy not me as the president. I simply act on and am the spokesperson for those policy decisions that have been deliberated upon and voted on in those meetings.

So, if you want to have in impact on your profession…if you want to make a difference…it is time for you to get involved! Join the GCEA if you haven’t already. Learn what we are doing to promote our profession, and to advocate for students. Because that is what we do. I get up every morning and ask myself, what am I going to do today to promote the education profession, preserve public education, and advocate for the students of the Commonwealth of Virginia. That is what I am committed to. What are you committed to? I hope that it is to making this the best year you and your students ever had…and to standing strong for your profession for indeed, if you don’t, no one else will.

The VEA is committed to protecting and preserving the VRS benefit that you currently have, but we in Richmond cannot do that alone, and that is not the only battle that looms before us this year. The forces against us have grown more powerful and more vocal. They are convincing the public that the VRS is a burden and it is one they no longer want to be responsible for. The VEA Legislative Committee voted last month to protect and preserve our retirement system even though by all accounts, we are going to be the last hold out. We are about to engage in an ugly battle and it will become uglier because our opponents can smell blood. They are aware of what has happened in Wisconsin and Maryland. They are feeling bolstered by the successes of their colleagues around the country.

Other items on the Governor’s legislative agenda for this year includes discontinuing continuing contracts, pushing through a Florida model voucher and tax credit plan, continue to promote charter schools, push for the 65% plan which is a VERY bad idea…but that isn’t stopping him or his friends in the House of Delegates.

This is a time when we need every teacher and support professional in Virginia to join with the VEA in our battle to protect what is rightfully ours. When legislators—when your Governor—tells you that we are not putting in any money into our retirement system which is what makes it so burdensome, you need to set the record straight. Those of us who were around in the early 1980’s made a deal with their localities and with the state…we won’t take a 5% raise and we will let you put that 5% into our pension funds. Does that sound like it was a freebie to you? Now, all these years later, they want to renege on that agreement and we at the VEA are saying, no. Not just no, but heck no! A deal is a deal. To me, it is more than just a deal…it is a covenant, and it is one that I am committed to protecting and preserving to the best of my ability…but I definitely need your help.

So, let me close by saying, if you are already a member of your local association, thank you. If you aren’t, you are going to need to make a decision…do you turn your back on the one organization that if fighting every day on your behalf, or do you join with us and join the fight? We need you…every single one of you, so please, join with us. You need us as much as we need you, and we have a long battle ahead where every person’s voice counts.

Thank you.