Bring out your inner advocate

Published on Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bring out your inner advocateby NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer

This month’s issue of the NJEA Review includes the New Jersey Teachers’ Salary Survey, beginning on page 40. It’s an annual feature that often catches my eye, because it reminds me of how I got involved in advocacy in the first place.

On my very first day as a teacher in New Jersey, I was handed a contract that covered the next three years. Like most people, the first thing I wanted to see was the salary guide. I finally found it tucked away near the back of the contract. In the first year, I was on Step 1 of 14. So far, so good.

But then I saw that in the second year I was going to be on Step 2 of 15. And the year after that I’d be on Step 3 of 16. Now, I didn’t know much about salary guides, but I was a math teacher and I could see that something didn’t add up. I thought a salary guide was supposed to work like a ladder that I could climb. That one seemed more like a treadmill.

Once I got a bit more established in the district, I raised my concerns with older colleagues who were active in the association. I’m not sure what I expected, but I shouldn’t have been surprised at their reaction: they told me to get involved in the local and do something about it.

So I did. I went to NJEA’s Summer Leadership Conference and took a class called Negotiating 101. I talked with veteran colleagues and learned from their experiences. Before long, I was on the negotiating team for my local, learning that it is easier to criticize from the outside than to dig in and do the real work of advocacy.

That experience taught me that even though taking action is harder, it is infinitely more rewarding, because when you become an advocate, you don’t just help yourself, but everyone around you. Our colleagues, students and communities all benefit when we are willing to fight for our profession and our public schools.

That’s why I encourage every member to get involved somehow. And you don’t have to be interested in salary guides to do it. In our union and our profession, there are endless advocacy opportunities for anyone with a vision for a better future. So find something that doesn’t seem right to you and work to make it better. Find a need and fill it.

That’s the approach that makes us strong as a union. It’s our commitment to advocacy that makes our public schools the best in the nation. And that advocacy starts with you.


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