Teaching Profession Q&A

New NEA President: ‘We Are Not Going to Put Our Students at Risk’ for COVID-19

By Madeline Will — August 06, 2020 9 min read
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Becky Pringle, a self-described “social justice warrior,” will be the next president of the nation’s largest teachers’ union at a time when schools are reeling from both the coronavirus pandemic and a national reckoning on racism.

Pringle, 65, was elected Wednesday to the National Education Association’s top spot with 93 percent of the vote, defeating teachers Mark Norberg and Mark Airgood. She told Education Week that she will shepherd teachers through what will be a tumultuous school year as schools decide whether to reopen for in-person instruction or continue with remote learning, while also championing efforts around racial equity and justice.

Pringle, a former Pennsylvania middle school science teacher who was in the classroom for three decades, served as the union’s vice president for the past six years alongside President Lily Eskelsen García. Pringle will be the third Black female president in the NEA’s 163-year history.

Princess Moss, the secretary-treasurer of the NEA and a former elementary school music teacher from Virginia, was elected NEA’s vice president, with 88 percent of the vote. Noel Candelaria, the immediate past president of the Texas State Teachers Association and a former special education teacher, was elected secretary-treasurer, with 60 percent of the vote.

Pringle, Moss, and Candelaria will all serve a three-year term, starting Sept. 1.

See also: NEA’s Lily Eskelsen García Talks Racial Justice, COVID Layoffs, and Leaving Office

EdWeek spoke to Pringle the morning after her election to discuss reopening schools safely, how schools can better serve students of color, and her hopes for the next education secretary. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You are taking office during unprecedented times for education. What do you see as the NEA’s role this fall as schools consider how to reopen?

Our primary concern and focus is keeping our students and our educators and our families and community safe. I very much look at it as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that’s the first thing. And then for us as educators, the second thing is to make sure that they continue to learn. ...

What I know is that [teachers] so want to be with their students. They were plucked away from them, and our students from each other, so quickly in the spring. And not only were they dealing with the impact of the virus personally, and trying to keep their own families safe, but then they were trying to figure out how they could do the very best work possible virtually without any preparation—too many instances, honestly, without the equipment and the tools they need or the training.

They made me so proud in that moment, but we all know that it’s not enough. Our students need more from us. If we’re going to try to keep them safe, and if that means that we cannot reopen schools, .... then we’ve gotta do better. That starts with making sure that we are doing everything possible to fill those gaps that existed already. ...

How in the world can we open [schools] safely? They’re not safe if the infection rates in that community are not low and have not been low for at least two weeks. They’re not safe if that school can’t figure out how to—and have the resources to—socially distance those students, to provide ongoing sanitation, health-care testing, and plans for when the students get sick. And we already have that evidence. We’re seeing that in Georgia and Iowa and Indiana, those schools that started back early, they are already shutting down classes and in some instances, the entire district.

The American Federation of Teachers has said nothing is off the table to prevent schools from reopening before they feel it’s safe, including safety strikes. Is that the NEA’s position too? Would you support local or state strikes?

We absolutely are supporting our locals and our state [affiliates] in whatever actions they need to take to keep our students safe. That means those kinds of grassroots actions, as well as legal actions. We joined the Florida affiliate in bringing a suit against the governor and we’re prepared to do that in other states as well if they feel that they’re putting their students at risk.

We are ramping up our work around [political] advocacy as well, ... from our school board elections to governors to members of Congress and the Senate, all the way, of course, up to the White House. But we’re also getting our members and everyone that they know to reach out to put pressure on the Senate [in passing a coronavirus aid package for schools]. I mean, really how long do they need to act on legislation that helps our communities and our students and our schools in this country? It is just unacceptable. It really is.

We are supporting our affiliates in whatever action they need to take to get folks to listen—we are not going to put our students at risk. We’re not going to do that.

You’re also taking office at a time when the country is confronting institutionalized racism. How can teachers, who are mostly white women, best support their Black students?

We know that regardless of the fact that some of our students and some of our teachers are living or teaching in a predominantly or all-white school, or they live in an all-white community, it doesn’t mean they still don’t have a responsibility. I tell them this all the time: They have a moral obligation as educators to ensure that their white students are prepared to live in a diverse and interdependent world. ...

We are working to ensure that our educators ... are taking courses and continuously learning about implicit bias, that they are steeping their practice in restorative practice, that they are culturally competent in their teaching and how they structure their environments, that they are learning about the culture and history of the students in their classrooms, and that they are preparing themselves to teach a more complete history of this country.

But in this moment, wow. You know, I actually look at it as an opportunity because folks can’t look away anymore. When we watched that video on the murder of George Floyd, people can’t look away anymore. I’m so proud of our affiliates who issued statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement because we have to say that affirmatively. And when we say affirmatively that Black lives matter, then all of our students will understand that as a country, we are going to center what we do in their humanity, that we see them. ...

We think our students don’t, but they do know that they’re being marginalized by this society, that they’re not being viewed as fully human. And when they watched everything unfold with the murder of George Floyd and so many others, they’re watching to see what we as adults are going to do in this moment. And I have committed this organization’s resources to making sure we are centered everything we do in equity, and that we are challenging ourselves every single day to work on racial and social justice.

It sounds like that might be your answer to my next question, but what are your top priorities over the next three years?

Everything is steeped in that vision, and everything is going to flow from that, but of course we have to address this pandemic. We’ve got to figure out how the learning of our students that really has been so significantly interrupted by the pandemic—how do we in this moment do better in teaching and learning? We have to figure that out.

We’re dealing with this current reality in front of us right now, but we have this aspirational vision, and we’re teaching [educators] how to build that bridge up between those two so that we don’t get steeped in what is right now, that we have that aspirational vision there. ...

And then the third priority for us is the election. Everything that happens in our schools for our kids and our communities, every decision that’s made is a political decision from the school board to the White House. I say to our members, your activism and involvement in politics is a moral and professional responsibility. ...

I could go on and on about Betsy DeVos, but she needs to go. And we need a new president, but our delegates didn’t just vote against Donald Trump [when they endorsed Joe Biden]. And I want to be real clear about that. ... I had an opportunity to meet with [Biden] and talk to him about his vision for education, and it is truly aspirational. He’s thinking about how we are going to provide the resources and support and the professional development and all of those things. He’s talking a lot about community schools, which I love, and how we are going together with industry and business to think about how we educate our students for jobs we don’t even know will exist yet.

We had a really deep conversation about that, how do we build those critical thinking and problem solving skills? It was just the most refreshing and exciting conversation I had. He’s actually creating a vision of transforming our public education system in a way that positions us into the future.

Who would you like to see as the next education secretary if Biden is elected?

We’ve talked about that with him, and he has promised that he will name an educator as the secretary of education. We’re so excited to work with him on folks that we know would be extraordinary in that position, but who have walked this walk. What we talked to him about is someone who’s committed really to public education, but also understands and has already started to take their own journey of awareness and leadership around racial and social justice. That is absolutely essential to us—that they understand that when they step into that position, they have to center their work in equity. He has committed that to us, and so we’re real excited about that choice.

What does it mean for you personally to become the president of the nation’s largest teachers’ union?

I’m still this Black girl from North Philly who struggled in poverty. My father pushed me, he drove me. He said, ‘Becky, you have to run faster and you have to jump higher as a Black woman in this society.’ And that drove me throughout my entire life. And my mom is this incredibly loving person who I described as somebody whose unconditional love caught me. I had this incredible dual parenting that certainly prepared me for this moment, but I’ll always be that person. It is still a little surreal, this science teacher who just wanted to figure out how I was going to capture the imagination of those babies with attitude. ... Oh my gosh, what I’ve experienced? I loved it. It kept me alive. It kept me excited and seeing their eyes light up around the wonders of science—just, oh my gosh, I get chills when I think about it, but that’s who I see myself as.

Stepping into this position now is just surreal. Over the last 12 years as an officer of the NEA, I’ve had this incredible opportunity to travel all over this country and the world to talk with members and students and parents and community leaders. Even as a Black woman in this moment, I am so hopeful about our future.

Image: Becky Pringle attends a 2018 news conference. —Andrew Harnik/AP

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

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