50 years and counting

By Linda Jacobson — July 04, 2005 2 min read
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In the midst of all the patriotic celebrating, I sat down Monday with Kathleen Roberts, who has been coming to these NEA conventions for more than 50 years.

Since she was dressed in a flag hat and flag scarf, I almost missed her amidst all the other similarly attired attendees.

At 90, she’s still an elected delegate to the Representative Assembly from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, still volunteering to read to children in her town of Raynham, Mass., and still dressing up as Martha Washington to help students learn about important historical figures.

Except for the years that her first and second husbands were sick, she has attended almost all of these gatherings since 1950.

“I still love it. Now I know people from all over the country,” she says.

Just after becoming a teacher in 1937, she was elected secretary of her local union. “That was before most of these people were born,” she says, looking around at others walking by.

For 47 years, Ms. Roberts taught mostly upper-elementary and middle grades, and at one time had 43 7th graders in one class. “You had to do everything,” she says. “There were no aides, and some places didn’t even have art or music teachers.”

Obviously, many conditions for teachers have improved.

As a retired teacher, Ms. Roberts says she now pays particular attention to the issues affecting other retirees, such as pensions and Social Security.

The Representative Assembly has also evolved over the years, she says.

Evening Gowns Not Required

NEA members, she says, didn’t used to have so many opportunities to speak at these events; the executive secretary, she says, did it all.
“Look at all the wonderful orators we’ve developed in our teachers,” she says.

And instead of taking off for the host city’s tourism spots, delegates used to entertain themselves in the evenings by attending state “open houses.” Florida, for example, might serve orange juice, and Hawaii, pineapple.

“Friendship Night,” which is no longer part of the annual meeting, was also a big social event.

“You wouldn’t think of coming without an evening gown,” she says. “It’s much more casual now, which I like.”

Even though she hasn’t been teaching since the ’80s, Ms. Roberts sympathizes with colleagues’ concerns over the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.

“The idea is good, but they don’t give the teachers the resources,” she says, echoing the message of union leaders.

She seemed a little embarrassed, however, by the pin she was wearing clipped to her denim MTA shirt that shows a picture of President Bush and reads “1000 Points of Light; 1 Dim Bulb.”

“Someone gave this to me,” she says. “I don’t like being negative.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the NEA blog.