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I have been an MEA member since the Fall of 1998 when I was hired at Rochester High School to teach English and History. At the time, I didn't know much about what being in a union meant, except that the union reps were welcoming and some of most helpful people on the staff. One of them encouraged me to become a rep, also, so I did. Even as a probationary teacher, I felt confident in taking on this role and had a wonderful mentor on that path. I transferred to Stoney Creek High School in the Fall of 2002, and have continued in my role ever since.
The most important thing MEA does for me and for my students is to allow me the freedom and confidence to teach the way I know is best for my students. It allows me to ask difficult questions of my students, their parents, and my administrators in my on-going effort to reach and teach my kids. Sometimes, being part of the MEA means having a resource when I think a law might be being circumvented or if I just have questions as to whether or not something is “right.” I'll give you an example: I noticed one of my special education students was receiving an accommodation that was not in his Individualized Education Program. He did not know the difference, but I felt strongly he could be successful without it. I talked to his caseload teacher and contacted his parent, and we all agreed since it wasn't listed there, he should not receive it. Without the MEA behind me, this could have gone a number of ways. In this particular case, the parent agreed, but that (as teachers everywhere can attest) is not always the way it goes.
I love being part of a team. My local is full of my closest friends and most trusted colleagues. I love knowing that I have a huge support system behind me. I love being able to help my colleagues be better, smarter, more effective educators. MEA provides opportunities for professional growth and classroom support. I have attended a handful of MEA conferences, and each time I meet passionate, brilliant teachers and other educational professionals whose first thought is always for kids. A lot of people outside of education like to think they know what a “union” is. They like to pontificate about all the evils of unions and how the union is somehow completely separate from the actual teachers in the classroom. I’m here to tell you – I am a classroom teacher. It’s all I’ve ever been, and all I’ll ever be. I have no aspirations of administration. I AM THE MEA. I love my students, I love my colleagues, and I love to teach… and I’m in a union.
This is an important question, and one I know may cause skepticism with my answer. Here is why the MEA is important: No gates. What does that mean? One of my mother’s oldest friends was a high school English teacher for 30 years. She was part of the reason I went into teaching. Always the creative, fun, sassy one, she would send me photos of the projects she had kids do and tell me about the essays she assigned and how the kids responded. One time she told me about the gates at her school. See, my friend worked in a “Right to Work” state. Her school administrators had gates put up in the parking lot, essentially locking her and her fellow adult colleagues into the school. (Before you make assumptions, no, this was not a particularly rough neighborhood.) They were not allowed to leave their place of employment (not even for lunch or an errand) until well after the day was over, and then they were expected to wait dutifully until those gates were opened. As if they were cattle.
This is why we need a union. Teachers by nature are not confrontational or political creatures. We want to do one thing: TEACH. A union provides protections so that we can do just that. As soon as legislators and “non-profit entities” start eroding those protections, we begin to feel those gates go up. Please do not be naive enough to think that the destruction of the union will somehow make your job better. Yes, you may have a little more money in your pocket, but I ask you this: For how long? Without unions – which are the last, best protection for workers’ rights throughout the world – the next thing to go is your salary. You think it’s been cut? Just wait. Ask those teachers in “RTW” states.
Look, I know NEA and MEA aren’t perfect. I have gripes, too. But c’mon, people. You really think we’ll all be better off without them? Let’s let them know what we want changed. Let them hear from you! Run for building rep, write letters, go to a conference, ask questions, get involved! WE ARE THE MEA. I believe that, and I won’t give it up.