Back-to-school time is a time for fresh starts: new teachers, new classrooms, maybe even a new school. It’s a time to reconnect with old friends and make a few new ones. At the AFT, we love back-to-school season.
This year, back-to-school season feels especially important.
The past few years have been some of the hardest for kids, parents and teachers alike. It’s no secret that educators are burned out, parents are overwhelmed and kids are anxious. We’ve been through a lot recently — including the pandemic, an increasingly polarized society, and even just the day-to-day stressors of a 24/7 online world. For many of us — kids and teachers alike — school is the place we go to make sense of all that. It’s where our students learn the basic skills they need for life and the lessons that will carry them through to college, career or whatever comes next.
Despite the recent challenges, we’re hopeful and excited about this year. We know we can turn things around by focusing on what our students need rather than on the culture wars and politicization of education that threaten to divide us.
That’s why the AFT is rolling up our sleeves and finding solutions this school year with our What Kids and Communities Need campaign. We are renewing our commitment to getting kids what they need to thrive and live joyful, fulfilling lives. That means a strong foundation in reading, math and science, and in practical life skills and critical thinking. It means smaller class sizes, and teachers who have enough time to plan their lessons and the respect and support they need to focus on teaching. And it includes cultivating more joy in our schools by giving kids plenty of recess and play in the school day; providing new ways to grow and learn through music, arts, sports, student government, robotics and other clubs; and offering pathways to opportunity through tutoring, career and technical education and more.
That’s what public schools give them — and teachers are always ready to get to work to do it even better. So this school year, the AFT is promoting some of our most successful programs.
Spreading Literacy and a Love of Reading
Earlier this year, in more than 20 states across the country, we watched thousands of kids bubble with excitement as they hand-picked books to take home at our Reading Opens the World events. Educators were thrilled to finally have titles on their shelves that truly offered something for everyone, and for many kids, it was the first time they saw characters who looked like them represented on the pages of a book. To date, we’ve given away more than 700,000 books at events hosted by more than 140 AFT locals in 20 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. We know how essential reading is to success in school and to our kids discovering their passions in life; we know that when kids, parents and teachers read and open books together, they really do open the world. We’re thrilled to continue the program this year and reach even more families. This back-to-school season, our Reading Opens the World literacy campaign will make stops in Scranton, Pa.; Houston; Nashua, N.H.; New Haven, Conn.; New York City; and more, to distribute hundreds of thousands of books to kids and their families.
Community Schools: Supports for the Whole Family
We continue to be floored by the stories of community schools around the country and the strides they have made, and we want to invest in even more of them. Community schools’ wraparound services bring important supports to where they’re easier to access, helping families get the healthcare, food assistance and other essentials they need all in one place: their school. By getting the wider community involved in helping families meet their basic needs, community schools make it possible for teachers to focus on teaching and for kids to just be kids.
The AFT and our affiliates currently support more than 700 community schools nationwide, and because of their enormous success and promise, we’ve recently set a new goal: to expand our support to 2,500 community schools over the next five years. Others agree with us: We’ve successfully worked with partners in Congress to double federal funding for community schools.
Empowering Teachers and Staff
Teaching has never been an easy job, but the past few years in particular have been some of the most difficult we’ve seen in our careers.
A June Gallup poll found that K-12 professionals are the most burned-out workers in America, with college educators coming in second. COVID-19, culture wars, gun violence and other strains have made teachers’ already-tough jobs even harder. Teachers’ job dissatisfaction is up 34 points since the start of the pandemic. The teaching profession was already facing shortages before the COVID-19 pandemic, and in many states it’s only gotten worse.
To help, our What Kids and Communities Need campaign is working to make teaching a more sustainable profession. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Together with our members, including our Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force, we are working to improve the climate, culture, conditions and compensation for our teachers and staff — things our members have told us they need in order to stay in their jobs and do the high-quality work that benefits kids the most, from more prep time, to less paperwork, to smaller class sizes. We’re also providing them with the resources they need to do their jobs and helping them share ideas on what works best: Just in time for this new school year, the AFT is proudly celebrating 2 million members on our landmark Share My Lesson platform, an award-winning community-based site created to bring together educators, parents, school-related personnel, education partners and higher education professionals with the common goal of finding and sharing the best educational resources available. Share My Lesson includes lesson plans that help teach current events and encourage classroom discussion.
We’re also fighting back in the political sphere so that our members can focus on teaching rather than on the culture wars and conspiracy theories that target educators and public education as a whole. Extremist politicians are trying to drive a wedge between parents and teachers by banning books, censoring curriculum and politicizing public education, but we won’t let them: Teachers and parents are coming together to fight for investments in public schools and the essential knowledge and skills students need, whether that’s after-school enrichment programs, art and music, literacy support, language instruction or the basic life skills kids get daily when they interact with their peers in the classroom.
Expanding Parent-Teacher Partnerships
Finally, we’re creating even more opportunities for parents and teachers to work together to improve their schools and their communities — work that happens informally every day, and that we want to continue to nurture and grow. We’ve seen parents and teachers together build more family services into our community schools in Los Angeles. In Texas and Florida, AFT members and parents are fighting to protect the rights of LGBTQIA+ students. At March for Our Lives rallies across the country this June, kids, parents and teachers demanded commonsense gun safety reforms, and while we need far more, their activism has already seen progress, with Congress passing the first piece of gun safety legislation in 30 years. To help support more collaborations like these, we are giving out 20 grants to AFT locals this year, totaling $1.5 million, through the AFT Powerful Partnerships Institute. We’re grateful our teachers and parents make this time and effort to collaborate, on top of their regular jobs and responsibilities, and we know it’s these partnerships that are key to our children’s success.
To help spread the word about these resources and opportunities for kids, parents and teachers, AFT officers and leaders will visit schools and communities around the country this fall, as we do every back-to-school season, and we will see the incredible things happening in America’s public schools every single day.
Every element of the What Kids and Communities Need campaign has us working together for the sake of our kids. When we work together, we bring hope into our schools and our communities. We bring the promise of a brighter future.
Welcome back to school.
More Resources for the New School Year
Get the new school year started off on the right track with more resources on topics such as classroom management, social-emotional learning, family engagement, supporting English-language learners, building successful community schools, and more.
RANDI WEINGARTEN is president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, which represents teachers; paraprofessionals and school-related personnel; higher education faculty and staff; nurses and other healthcare professionals; local, state and federal government employees; and early childhood educators. The AFT champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for students, their families and communities. The AFT and its members advance these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining and political activism, and especially through members’ work.