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First-Timers Find NEA Meeting Daunting

For many first-time delegates, the National Education Association's annual convention can be overwhelming with its milling crowds, enormous Representative Assembly hall, and fast-paced debates.

"It's quite intimidating," said Ashley Bettas, a first-timer from Tacoma, Wash. Ms. Bettas said the sheer size of the gathering, which is populated by nearly 9,000 delegates alone, can be disconcerting. Still, she expressed excitement at being here in the nation's capital in a room where so many people are working together to make decisions that they hope will benefit students nationwide.


Voices from the NEA's annual meeting:

NEA President Reg Weaver's introduction of Sen. Clinton. (0:35; MP3 format)

Excerpts from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's address at the NEA's annual meeting. (4:26; MP3 format)

Gloria Buck, 30-year special education teacher, Lapeer Community Schools, Michigan. (1:23; MP3 format)

Coy D. Marquardt, 7th-grade teacher, Iowa City, Iowa, a first-time delegate. (1:15; MP3 format)

Nancy Ruth White, Redlands, Calif., retired 35-year educator and veteran delegate. (1:55; MP3 format)

Barbara Wilson, school librarian, Mineral, Virginia, 21-year NEA member. (1:40; MP3 format)

But other first-timers said that while the July 4-7 meeting was exciting, the novelty could be challenging, particularly if they had not received any kind of orientation to help them navigate the conference. Of the delegates interviewed by Education Week, most attended orientations in their states or at the beginning of the conference, but a few arrived with only a basic outline of what to expect.

"You're definitely in a hotbed of issues," said John Gilbert, a first-time delegate from the Salem, Ore., area. He spoke out, despite his initial hesitations, on the main assembly floor during a debate on dues increases, which he was leaning against. "I was scared until I got mad, and then it was easy to get up and speak," said Mr. Gilbert, who represents 180 custodial workers and felt that he needed to address the issue. "I know when I go back [to my membership], that I'll have to explain why I made my vote the way I did."

Overall, first-timers said the get-together was well-run and they were impressed by the democratic structure that provided individuals with the ability to voice crucial concerns. A few, however, noted that logistical and technological limitations made understanding what was happening difficult at times.

For example, some delegates said that ease or difficulty in following the proceedings could depend on where their state organization was positioned in the Washington Convention Center hall. Others said the use of televisions to display amendment changes made it confusing to follow in print. Mr. Gilbert found the Representative Assembly's discussions and votes a "little too fast."

All the delegates interviewed acknowledged that one of the most difficult aspects was just keeping up with the business at hand. The language of many bills and amendments placed before the assembly can be difficult to understand, they said, equating the review of amendment revisions to sitting and listening to a lawyer.

Mark Horton, a first-time delegate from Reno, Nev., said he found it easier to get his bearings at the Representative Assembly because he was attending with a mentor who had six years' experience.

"It would be overwhelming to come here by myself," he said. "There's a lot of information coming at you."

The delegates said they would advise newcomers to request local orientations before attending the national conference, to be prepared to ask questions at the conference itself, and to try to hook up with a mentor who could help filter the vast amount of information.

—Marianne D. Hurst

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