For the past three years, Becky Pringle has led the nation’s largest teachers’ union in tumultuous times—throughout the pandemic and its aftermath, a wave of legislation restricting instruction on racism and LGBTQ+ issues, and the emergence of generative artificial intelligence.
But as Pringle was re-elected to her second (and final) three-year term as National Education Association president with 94 percent of the vote, she doubled down on her commitment to social justice in education and protecting the teaching profession against what she sees as a dangerous series of political attacks.
“We are in the fight of our lives for public education in this country,” Pringle told NEA delegates during the annual representative assembly here. “In this moment where public education is under attack, we have to protect it.”
The NEA had received some criticism from its members for convening in Florida, a state with restrictions on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. During the representative assembly, Pringle told delegates that she plans to work with NEA’s general counsel and executive director to draft guidance on where to hold future meetings, which will be considered by the NEA board of directors in September.
Pringle spoke to Education Week about her remaining goals as president, her concerns about how political and cultural debates are affecting teachers, and her thoughts on convening in red states in the future.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How have your thoughts evolved on meeting in conservative states with restrictions on abortion or LGBTQ+ rights?
We’re in different times, there’s just no question about it. And when we adopted the bylaw that currently guides us as we determine where we’re going to go, we could never have dreamed that Roe [v. Wade] would be overturned. ... Certainly the attacks on trans students and the LGBTQ+ community; certainly the change in gun laws with open carry [policies]—I mean, just so many things that just were not something we considered.
We worked so hard when the laws started passing here in Florida, and we worked very closely with our affiliate here, and they were concerned that after the election and [Gov. Ron] DeSantis went in that people were gonna abandon them. They were very, very, very explicit: We need our union. So that’s why we came here.
But as these laws evolve—and it’s not just Florida—it was time for us to take a look. Given the fact that we haven’t had a discussion based on all these wide-ranging laws impacting rights and threatening the people, and we know the rhetoric, I felt that it was my responsibility as president to have a conversation.
I’m not going to say we’re never going to a red state. Or if some of these onerous laws are passed [somewhere we’ve scheduled an event], I’m not going say at this moment, “Definitely, we’re not going there,” because we can’t cede Florida or anywhere else. We can’t just say, “Oh man, we’re not going there.” We just have to think a little more deeply about what’s happened.
Delegates committed half a million dollars to fighting anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policies. What will the implementation of such an expansive measure look like?
It is expansive. So I don’t know yet. We have to really dig in and see what we’re doing already that we have to deepen, what we have to add.
When this union began taking positions in support of our LGBTQ+ community, we didn’t have a clue where we’d be today. When marriage equality passed, it was just a celebration. And it was very personal for me. My daughter married the love of her life. And they had to get married in New York because she was marrying a woman, and New York was one of the few states where it was legal. That was fine because they lived there, but then they moved to Texas. And I’m like, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that? No, don’t do that!”
I was so worried about them. And I was worried that if they wanted to start a family, what would that look like? Could they legally do stuff? It was too much, as a mother. I was frantic. When the Supreme Court [approved] marriage equality, it was just so celebratory and so personal, and our union fought so hard.
We’re like, “Here we go. Here we don’t go.” That’s how we’re feeling in this moment. It’s just like with racism. I’ll never forget when President Obama got elected, and people said, “We’re over racism now. Post-racism.” What? It’s kind of like that, in that people were thinking we’re done with that. But then, just like with racism, when things started to be exposed, we realized that we had done really good work, but we weren’t finished.
We’re always on a journey of awareness. Even for we who are staunch advocates for LGBTQ rights, there’s still more you have to learn. I mean, [at the representative assembly this week], I stood at that microphone and misgendered somebody—into the microphone. That was painful for me. But it also is an opportunity for me to model: We’re going to make mistakes. Acknowledge mistakes, and know that you still have to learn about our students and our colleagues.
It’s a lot of work we’re taking on. I have to stay out of the debate when it’s happening, but for me, it’s work we need to do.
I’ve talked to LGBTQ+ teachers and teachers of color across the country who have said that they are thinking about leaving the profession. What do you say to those educators?
Oh my goodness. I held a [virtual] town hall with some of the members here in Florida, and an aspiring educator was on the call. I don’t usually have a loss for words, but I was stumped by her question. She asked me, “Becky, I’m going to graduate with my degree in education. What would you say to me to convince me that I should stay and teach in Florida?”
I don’t know. I don’t know if I could stay and teach here. I don’t know if I could do it. I mean, you have teachers who look like me who are being told that they have to teach slavery as forced migration. Are you kidding me right now? I was like, [whispers] “Get out.”
But of course I didn’t say that. I said, “You have to tap into your why. You have to remember why. And then you have to remember there are students here who need you, and you now are a trained leader in your union. They need that kind of strong advocate that not only is focused on your professional practice, but is taking a professional responsibility to advocate for your students.”
I’m not gonna deny what’s happened here. I was talking to another teacher who’s like, “I’m done, I’m not doing this. I can’t teach like this. And I’m afraid every day if they’re take my license or take my job. I’m not doing it.”
And they’re not paid enough to do it. Why would you take that? Why would you show up to the school board meeting and be harassed and all of the things? There’s no question it has had an impact on the educator shortage problem in this country, particularly in this state.
But as a teacher myself and as an advocate, I’m going to always try to convince them this is when you’re needed the most. And if you become a teacher—I say this all the time—you’ll get to do it. You’ll get to be in this moment standing up, in a way that you would not in any other profession, every single day because of what you do for kids.
You announced that the NEA will be convening a task force to discuss the role of AI in education. What are your thoughts about how AI could change the teaching profession?
When we had our International Summit for the Teaching Profession [this spring], it was fascinating to hear where other countries are, particularly countries like Singapore. They really lean into technology. [And] as I was traveling around the country, I was hearing our teachers talk about how they’ve been using it. It was fascinating.
[This task force is] not for the purpose of, “Oh, it’s terrible, and we’re afraid.” But there are cautions for sure. What do we want to say about that? What do we know about it? The reality is it’s here, and it’s not going anywhere.
I felt that as president we needed to dig into this. I really wanted to hear from our members how they were experiencing it. As I talk with partners here in the United States and around the world, I wanted to show up in a place where I’ve heard from my members about what they’re thinking about, what they’re actually doing, what they’re creating themselves.
I’m gonna bring together groups of people—from external folks, from technology [sectors], from around the world who are ahead of us in the U.S., and other labor unions—and have a conversation about where we should be.
What do you hope to accomplish in your final three years as NEA president?
When I became president three years ago, I articulated a bold and long term vision that we would reclaim public education as a common good and a foundation of democracy. And that we would transform into a racially and socially just and equitable system that prepares every student. Everything I do, every decision I make, every allocation of funds, all of it is steeped in that. For me that looks like all students, all schools, and all educators are succeeding—and everybody knows it.
One of the things I’m tackling is changing the current assessment system and the schedule [for testing]. I put together a task force to put together principles for authentic assessment. It’s not tied to the standardized assessments we now have, but that are able to show what [students] know and are able to do in multiple ways that actually will identify what their strengths and weaknesses are, and to supply teachers with the information they need to change their practice.
And then every school [should be] a community school. I don’t know that I’ll get that done in three years. But [we] have already increased numbers during my tenure, from electing the right president that put in place the people in his cabinet that support us. (The U.S. Department of Education has committed millions to funding for community schools. Some NEA affiliates have also bargained for a commitment to community schools.)
I’m a big opponent of anyone talking about what sounds like a silver bullet solution to a complex problem. But for me, community schools get at just about all of it. We have the evidence now that it increases retention. You have more diverse staff. The students are more joyous, and they’re more empowered. There’s a direct tie to their learning. They’re feeding the kids if they’re hungry, they’re getting dental care if that’s what they need, they’re getting eyeglasses if they can’t see. It’s everyone understanding it’s their shared responsibility.
I’ve set a goal of 25,000 community schools. (One analysis estimates that there are about 10,000 community schools in the United States.) We’ll see how close we get. But I feel like we’ve got to have a stretch goal.