I’m a big planner. I can tell you what my students will do every day for the rest of this year. Each week, I send my husband an email about who goes where, when, and who is picking them up and how much money they might need. I have lists. My lists have lists. This is to say, I don’t get “carried away” very often - and the TEACH conference is something that can trigger that just that feeling.
When I arrived at the 2017 TEACH Conference, I did just that, and I’d love to tell you some of the great ways you can enjoy thhis years conference (July 11-13) in Washington, D.C., and how to make the most of the pre-TEACH opportunities on July 10.
Here’s my story: When I arrived at the hotel around noon, I had planned to do some work, take a nap and maybe walk to a restaurant nearby for dinner. I like to travel alone, and this is not an unusual scenario for me on my trips to conferences. Yet, as I walked through the lobby, I was intrigued by AFT information about going to Capitol Hill to meet with U.S. representatives and senators. I had a five-minute conversation with someone to get more information, and before I knew it, I was dropping my stuff off in my room and returning to catch a bus full of excited educators who were ready to make their voices heard. Imagine my surprise, when Mary Cathyrn Ricker, the AFT executive vice president, boarded the bus and took a group shot of all of us as we held up our signs and cheered. I was literally being carried away.
Once we reached the Capitol, we exited the bus, and I was feeling lucky that the woman back in the lobby who had explained this endeavor to me had also slathered me with suntan lotion on the way out. It was a hot day, and we were given paper fans to both cool ourselves and grab the attention of local politicians. I stood under a tree with dozens of other lobbyists and activists, when U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi took the mini-stage and stirred up the crowd. Before long, AFT volunteers were taking groups to different buildings for prearranged meetings. In a twist of fate, the woman I was sitting with on the bus was one of those people, and when they needed another person to meet with a politician from the Northeast, she came and found me, having chatted all the way over about politics in New York. I felt very special as I got “clearance” and was soon on my way.
As we headed to the meeting, the AFT organizer guided me and my group through the talking points, asking us to think about specific ways we are impacted by cuts to funding. I knew that I wanted to talk about cuts that would eliminate after-school programs in areas that needed them the most.
As an English teacher, I know how limited exposure to experiences can cause students to fall even further behind because their background knowledge is lacking, which makes it difficult to establish schema for understanding. There were long hallways, security checks, lots of chatter, and opportunities to talk with real lawmakers. An hour later, I boarded the bus talking excitedly with those who’d been in meetings with me. As our buses pulled away, it occurred to me what an onslaught we had been.
That night, as I was reflecting on everything, it occurred to me that I had been missing this experience of being an educator-activist, and through this opportunity, I was able to create schema that allowed me to make the leap between my local union and this bigger immersive experience. I do not underestimate the connection between this event and the decision to run for president of my local the following year.
Please allow yourself to get carried away, and gain experiences that very well may lead you to decisive action when you get home!
This year, there is an Activism Mini-Institute at Pre-TEACH that offers sessions such as Organizing Parents and Staff to Fund Our Future, Educators: Run for Office!, Communications Tools and Tactics to Build an Online Campaign, Organizing 101: One-on-One Conversations, and Organizing 101: Introduction to Direct Action, a Student Debt Clinic, and the opportunity to participate in AFT Lobby Day. I allowed myself to swerve off my plan, and I am so glad I did.
The next day, I went to a project-based learning workshop that had an activity I immediately stole (don’t worry—we were encouraged to do this)! I had always built a Marshmallow Tower to start the school year. However, the project left our desks sticky, and I was always appalled that some students chose to eat the towers after we deconstructed them (ew!), and it wasn’t as challenging as I would have liked it to be. The activity in the project-based learning session used pipe cleaners and some truly amazing 21st-century scenarios to mix things up.
Here is my updated challenge that I learned about at the session. The best part of the workshop, of course, was the interactions with other educators. In one part of the activity, participants had to work together silently, and use only one hand in another. It was the perfect metaphor for “teachers helping teachers.”
There were many other “aha” moments at the conference, but I was really struck by the way we were all bound together with a common goal: to get better. TEACH was all about finding ways to reach our students. I ate lunch with random strangers, who, as it turns out, didn’t seem random at all. Everyone was familiar in some way—we had been teaching for decades, or we shared the same subjects, or we had just learned a cool idea that we had to share. The fact was, and remains, that teaching is the juxtaposition of independence and interdependence. The best teaching environments are ones where we are given freedom to be ourselves and trust our judgment, but also the space and opportunity to learn from each other.
I’m really excited to be presenting this year at TEACH, and I would love to meet you. I’m sure we have something in common! My session is about getting started with Social and Emotional Learning, and I’d love to talk about ways that you already meet the needs of kiddos and what you can do to get even better!
So, if you are heading to TEACH, here is one of the many lists that I’ll share with three things to remember:
- Sunscreen. Hydration. Comfy shoes.
- You don’t have to know what you are doing. Clearly, I was carried away and ended up having a blast, making an impact, and being completely inspired by the time I left. You are the union.
- You can’t wait for someone else to do this work. You don’t have to have a plan because the AFT will provide you with the support you need!
P.S. Look for every chance to connect! You never know who you might run into.