It has been four years, and I can’t believe it’s already time to say good-bye.
When NEA-Alaska members elected me to serve as president in 2016, I knew that the job was temporary. I’m a fan of term limits, and after two, two-year terms, I’m heading back to my job as a high school English teacher in Fairbanks.
Serving you, as president of NEA-Alaska, has been one of the greatest honors of my life.
Thank you for allowing me to be your champion. Being the president of the largest union in Alaska is a daunting task, but I found it amazingly joyful because one of the key parts of the job is advocating for student learning.
I visited more than half of Alaska’s 500 schools, and I spent time watching you in your classrooms. I got to see your interactions with students in offices, the cafeteria, and in hallways. Working with children and helping them learn is an act of love, and I found love in every corner of our rugged state.
Thanks in part to Betsy DeVos, there has been no shortage of controversy about the direction of public education throughout the country. But because of the work of so many of you, we continue to be united by NEA-Alaska’s mission, “to be an advocate for an excellent public education for each child in Alaska and to advance the interests of public school employees.” This hasn’t happened by accident. The NEA-Alaska board of directors, the Delegate Assembly, and the presidents of every one of our 63 locals, have tirelessly advocated for what their communities need in order to make learning happen for the 135,000 students in our state.
Our focus on student learning has made our union stronger. Despite organized and powerful opposition to public education on both the national and state levels, we have more pro-public education legislators serving in Juneau than we have seen in a long time. We have built strong, positive relationships with the state board of education, the Department of Education and Early Development, as well as the school board, superintendent, and principal organizations.
These strong relationships resulted in Alaska’s Education Challenge, the blueprint document that has guided and unified Alaskans around key concepts that can boast overwhelming public support. This document, crafted with significant educator involvement, also serves as Alaska’s answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, sharpening the focus on safety and well-being of students and school employees, student success, and responsible and reflective student learning.
No one knows better than our members that Alaska leads the country in many statistics that can slow student learning. Our being at the table has elevated Alaska’s focus on trauma, ACEs, and social-emotional learning which has increased our ability to help the students that we serve. One measure of that improvement is that the training that is now taking place in schools is easily double where it was prior to 2016.
Although I have loved this job, I haven’t managed to solve every issue that is facing our schools. My greatest regret is not finding a way to repair the extraordinary damage that was done to our retirement system in 2006 when Alaska shifted from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan. I created the Saving Our Alaska Retirement committee to advise NEA-Alaska’s leadership. They have raised the profile of the issue, and they have increased the amount of information and education that we now provide to members. But the problem persists, and every new hire has to lean into retirement savings in ways that educators hired prior to 2006 would never have dreamed of. But we’re definitely not giving up. We’re expanding our financial education of our members and continuing to press the legislature and governor to provide a retirement with dignity for all school employees.
My term officially ends in July. But just because we’re changing presidents doesn’t mean that NEA-Alaska isn’t in a great position going forward. President-elect Tom Klaameyer is bringing fresh perspective and energy to the position. Tom is a terrific high school social studies teacher and currently the president of the Anchorage Education Association. The two of us have worked closely over my term in office, and I will always be happy to help Tom when he calls on me. I know that Tom brings the right set of skills for this challenging time in NEA-Alaska’s history.
I never dreamed that the last three months of my work at this position would be so fraught. The grip of the COVID-19 crisis has closed all the schools in the state and thrust all of us into a digital learning situation that we never anticipated. I don’t have a crystal ball that tells me how we’re going to escape from this pandemic, but I do know that I sleep a lot better knowing that I am part of a fantastic union and that you are all part of it. NEA-Alaska has a strong foundation going forward. We have great local leaders supported by highly professional staff who are actively listening to members, advocating for their concerns, and continuing to seize the high ground of student learning.
As I say good-bye, I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.