This school year, National Education Association President Becky Pringle set out on a 15-state journey to find examples of hope.
While acknowledging the massive challenges of the last two years, Pringle emphasized the pockets of joy still taking in place in schools—and called in her keynote speech to the NEA’s representative assembly this week for members to fight against injustice.
“NEA, you are answering my call to lead a movement that unites not just our members, but this entire nation, to reclaim public education as a common good, and then transform it into something it was never designed to be—a racially and socially just and equitable system that prepares every student—every one—to succeed in this diverse and interdependent world,” Pringle said in her speech.
She condemned “radicalized Supreme Court” decisions on the religious expression of school employees, state aid to religious schools, and abortion rights. And Pringle said the NEA would keep fighting against the wave of anti-LGBTQ bills across the country, as well as those that limit how teachers discuss racism in the classroom.
“We will say gay. We will say trans,” she said. “And we will continue to take seriously our responsibility as educators to teach our students this nation’s true and complete history: ... the triumphant moments, and those where we turned our backs on the values we espoused at our founding.”
Pringle spoke to Education Week about some of what she heard and saw during her national tour, the thinking behind the union’s new school safety resolutions, and contested a report about NEA boycotts. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On an NEA survey that found 55 percent of members are thinking of leaving the profession earlier than planned
That shocked me. I’ve been traveling across the country, so I’ve been hearing it, but I’m still shocked by it, honestly. But when we dug into it, it didn’t reveal anything that surprised us. The fact that our educators still have to work two and three jobs. ... I could talk about professional pay. I could talk about professional respect, and that’s a big ol’ thing. But for teachers, it is about them being able to make teaching and learning decisions.
And that came front and center over the last year when other people were telling us we couldn’t teach the true and complete history of this country, as though they know about what our students need to learn and be able to do. Of course they don’t, but they don’t want to listen to us as professionals.
When I think about the things that our educators have said to me, and said in the survey, too: They can’t meet the individual needs of students because there are too many. They don’t have the mental health professionals they need, the counselors and social workers they need.
What ends up happening is everything comes to the schoolhouse door, and educators are being asked to shoulder that without the shared responsibility of everyone—from housing to health care to, oh my goodness, the economic injustice in this country. All of that impacts our students’ ability to learn every day.
On possible solutions to teacher shortages
I visited North Carolina, and it was extraordinary what they were doing. You’ve heard of grow-your-own programs, but I’ve never seen one like this.
It’s the North Carolina Teacher Cadet program, and the school district I visited in Forsyth County—I had never seen the success that they had in terms of the return on investment. With a program that targeted their high school students, they actually taught teaching courses there, partnered with the university. They were getting credit. I mean, they were teaching the fundamentals of education. It was just extraordinary. And then allowing the students an opportunity to work with younger students and practice their skills.
They designed it with the fact that they wanted to focus on recruiting and retaining teachers of color. And so they were very deliberate in outreach to their students and very deliberate in getting those teachers who came back to help to be part of the program.
Out of all the students in these pre-education courses, 80 percent actually went through and became teachers in North Carolina. Something like 75 percent came back to Forsyth County, and 70 percent came back to East Forsyth High School. I’ve never seen anything like that! It was so incredible.
The legislature in North Carolina decided to take away funding for it. At the NEA, we have a $60 million investment in what we call our Great Public Schools fund, where we fund innovation, and we decided to step into that gap, so they were able to keep the cadet program going. Part of the requirement for the grant is that you become part of our learning cohort. So we can figure out how we’re going to scope and scale that [program].
On the debates over how to keep schools safe
I always reject the [phrase] “hardening schools,” but that’s what we say. I wish people [would] just stop a minute and think about what that says to our students. We’re hardening their schools. How in the world is that creating an environment that’s conducive to teaching and learning and having fun and playing instruments and doing science projects? I know what people mean by that, but you know, words matter.
[Educators] may not agree on the measures to keep schools safe. What I’ve been seeing as I travel to different communities, they’re doing different things to keep their schools safe. It is the community—the educators, the students themselves, the parents, the mental health professionals—coming together to talk about, how do we keep these schools safe?
As we’re all watching things, and even before the controversy started, we already knew that they had all of these hardening things in place. Did that stop [the gunman]? It didn’t. ... To address the epidemic of gun violence is going to take a holistic approach, but we [will] not back away from continuing to demand that this country take even more action on common-sense, comprehensive solutions.
On the NEA’s stance on school resource officers and policing in schools
We have a [newly approved] policy statement on safe, just, and equitable schools, not on SROs. That’s a really important distinction because ... there are some schools that employ SROs. We talked a lot about that. We have members who are SROs, and they were part of the task force that put together the [policy] statement.
It is about making sure that we have professionals in those buildings that have the training and ongoing involvement and engagement with the education community. The focus is not on guns, the focus is not on hardening schools, the focus is not on the negative aspects of discipline. We have to talk about the inequitable discipline in this country, but the charge I gave the task force is, “I need you to create a vision of what a safe, just, equitable school looks like.”
We’ll talk about the role of police in schools. And we’ll talk about those hardening [measures]. We’ll talk about all those things, but we first have to create a vision of what it looks like, so you can invest in those things that will make that school safe and equitable.
If you look at all of the [school shootings] that have happened in this country, there is no one thing that would have prevented that. Our policy statement takes into account all of those things, but centers it from a place of what we want, even as we address the fact that over-policing in our schools impacts our Black and brown [and] Indigenous students disproportionately [and] more likely is the cause of the school-to-prison pipeline.
On reports that the NEA pulled its representative assembly out of Texas in a boycott over state politics
First of all, the NEA has a very strict policy about boycotts. Even if that was [the case], we have a process that you go through. It was not a boycott. It was about safety.
As I try to remind many, many people, we are still in a pandemic. ... We had a virtual RA last year, and as we got into the throes of the [coronavirus] Delta variant—which was horrible—it set us all back. You saw schools going back to virtual. I had to make a decision [about the 2022 RA, which was originally scheduled to take place in Dallas] really early in the year based on what states and localities were doing.
For me to imagine bringing 8,000 people together—I honestly couldn’t imagine it, but I had to say, OK, this is what we know in science. I know people don’t believe in it, but this is science, this is what we know. These are the mitigation strategies that we know work if we layer them. [If] we’re able to work with venues and delegates and have laws that will help us, then we think we can do it. [Editor’s note: The NEA required all attendees at the RA to be vaccinated with a booster, wear a KN95 or N95 mask, complete a daily health screening, and take a COVID-19 rapid antigen test every three days.]
So, at the time that we made the decision, we wanted to make sure that we came to a place that had laws in place to protect our delegates. The decision to change the venue had everything to do with the fact that the state of Illinois—with the positions that were taken at the time we had to make the decision—believed in masks and it wasn’t actually forbidden.
I can’t answer the question about going forward. [Editor’s note: The 2023 RA is scheduled to take place in Orlando, Fla.] My decision was made around safety. I know there’s a lot of controversy about Texas—there’s a lot of controversy about a lot of states—in terms of politics and all of that, but our decision will be based on, can we keep our delegates safe?