NJEA phones every member during “Education Summer”
By Patrick Rumaker
In an era when people are more likely to use their smartphone for TikTok than to talk, and to only answer their landlines when they recognize the caller—if they have a landline at all—98 NJEA members spent six weeks last summer holding over 44,000 authentic, one-on-one conversations with other NJEA members.
And they were persistent. Callers attempted to reach every NJEA member at least two times. All 424,554 numbers on file for NJEA’s 200,000 members—mobile phones and landlines—were dialed.
It was all part of an initiative called 200K Conversations.
The member-callers were persistent because each of them had committed to having 600 quality conversations in addition to all the wrong numbers, the calls that went unanswered, and the ones that ended before they really got started.
Bridgeton Education Association member and caller Michael Morton broke down those numbers.
“It was 600 conversations in six weeks: that’s 100 conversations a week or 20 conversations a day for five days,” Morton said. “Each day that meant spending about four to five hours on the phone calling about 120 to 150 members in order to get those 20 conversations.”
How are you?
For those members who answered the phone, the most surprising aspect of the call was that they weren’t being asked to do anything. They were simply asked, “How are you?”
“We weren’t phone banking!” NJEA Vice President Steve Beatty said. “It was not a call trying to talk about something NJEA wanted members to do. It was not a call supporting a candidate or a call to get members to come to a rally or come to a conference. It really was just a call to ask, ‘How are you?’ and ‘What are your biggest concerns?’”
Beatty said these questions and other prompts were about getting a conversation going—to really listen to what members had to say.
“The whole premise of this was so different from anything I’ve ever worked on before,” said Gene Behme, a caller and member of the Parsippany-Troy Hills Education Association. “You end up having really great conversations because they’re authentic. We were calling members to talk about what matters most to them.”
“I think that it was natural for me to gravitate to this program because I’ve always enjoyed having conversations with members,” Behme said. “I think that as an organization we can sometimes lose sight of the end goal, which is finding out what matters most to our members.”
The authenticity of the conversations also drew Behme in.
“I expected this to be like what I was used to dealing with: keeping people from hanging up the phone because they assume you’re a telemarketer,” Behme said. “But when you start the conversation and you first introduce yourself as a fellow educator—in my case, I teach fifth grade—suddenly a connection is made. The next thing you know you’re trying to bring the conversation to a close because it’s lasting over 30 minutes.”
While there was some friendly competition among callers to get in the most calls each day, Behme said that after a while it really wasn’t about the numbers.
“It was more about the quality of the conversations,” Behme said.
Attempting to call every member on the phone is a massive task that takes intention and resources to be sustainable, but Beatty notes that it’s really nothing new. Strong unions, he said, make sure that every member knows they’re welcome and finds their space and their voice in the union.
At one point during the 2019 NEA Representative Assembly in Houston, NJEA’s leadership team reflected on the growing success of the member-driven approach to achieve job justice for educational support professionals (ESP) and relief for all members from the high cost of health insurance premiums under Chapter 78. The leadership team is composed of the NJEA president, vice president, secretary-treasurer, executive director, and deputy executive director. It was in that conversation that Beatty proposed an idea.
“We should be talking to every single one of our members,” he said. “We have to put something in place where we are literally trying to achieve that.”
Beatty worked with the leadership team to gather an NJEA staff work group led by UniServ regional directors Mayrose Wegmann and Thomas Hardy to build something that would put members’ voices at the center and ultimately be led by members.
“We wanted to build something that was going to be sustainable and really be born of member voice,” Beatty said. “With that in mind we assembled a team early on to map out what this would look like and how it would work. What are the structures we have to build to support it, and what other things we need to consider?”
Beta testing 200K conversations
Before NJEA dubbed the summer of 2021 “Education Summer,” when 98 callers, supported by 16 NJEA consultants and more than a dozen full-time NJEA staff members, there was a volunteer effort to test out calling members with no agenda other than to listen to them.
Demonstrating the member-driven nature of what was to become 200K Conversations, Katie Quinn, a Freehold Regional Education Association member and now an NJEA UniServ consultant in the Region 3 office in Voorhees, said that the volunteers came up with the conversation prompts in meetings with local leaders and volunteers who had worked on previous NJEA initiatives, and NJEA leaders and staff.
“It was nearly all volunteers, and we started meeting monthly and then it became weekly,” she said. “We, the members, wrote the script together. It went in the direction the members wanted.”
“When we talk about something being member-driven that doesn’t mean that NJEA staff and leaders don’t offer practical support and resources,” Hardy said. “It was members saying, ‘Here’s something we want to do.’ And unless it violated policy, we afforded them the latitude do what they wanted, and they did the work. They didn’t turn to staff and say, ‘We want to do this, this and this, now you go do it staff.’ It was genuinely member-driven.”
Beginning in the summer of 2020, these member volunteers sat themselves at their home computers and, following approval to participate, logged into a system that dialed random members’ phone numbers. They made the calls knowing little more than the members’ names, their local and county associations, and their membership categories (i.e., professional or ESP).
“There was no pressure, so I figured I’d give it a try,” Morton said. “On Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings I practiced calling some of our members. I felt pretty comfortable with it, so when I applied to work with the program this past summer, I was able to say with good faith that I was already doing it.”
“The short-term plan was to get it moving, to study how it can work, and to get as many people as involved as possible,” Beatty said. “That gave us the data to come back and say that it was worth resourcing.”
Those resources, which among other expenses provided stipends to the 98 callers who applied for the work this past summer, were funded substantially through a grant from NEA. NJEA’s national affiliate was as interested in the outcomes of the 200K Conversations initiative as NJEA was.
The 98 callers were not going it alone. They worked in one of 12 regional teams that were each supported by one or two of 16 consultants. The teams met through Zoom with their consultants twice per week. Each caller met one-on-one with their team’s assigned consultants once per week.
NJEA consultants are part-time NJEA staff who are also NJEA members and public school or community college employees. NJEA employs consultants in its UniServ, Professional Development, Communications, Organizing, and Government Relations divisions. The NJEA Research and Economic Services Division employs part-time pension consultants who are retired educators and members of NJREA. For the 200K conversations program, the consultants were drawn from the Organizing or UniServ divisions.
Because the callers were engaging in something that hadn’t been done on such a large scale before—calling every member, but with no specific request—it was in many ways up to them and the consultants supporting them to establish the protocols and develop resources to support their work. NJEA consultants and full-time staff provided practical and moral support and advice to assist the callers.
Antoinette Blaustein, a North Hunterdon Regional High School District Education Association member who is a UniServ consultant in the Region 21 UniServ office in Livingston, was asked by Hardy to consider serving as a consultant for the 200K conversations. She was assigned to work with one of the two teams in Essex County. With eight years of experience as a consultant bargaining contracts processing grievances, addressing legal matters, and assisting with arbitrations, Blaustein noted that working with the 200K Conversations callers was challenging in a different way.
“It was a balancing act to try to manage a group of people virtually through something that has never really been done before,” Blaustein said. “There was a lot of emotion involved in the whole project, which is very different from the cut-and-dried work of dealing with a grievance or bargaining a contract. I had 11 people in my group, and they all brought their own individual perspectives to the assignment.”
In addition to the biweekly meetings with their teams, biweekly meetings with the other consultants, weekly meetings with each individual team member, and bimonthly meetings with the entire group 200K participants, consultants like Blaustein were essentially on-call seven days a week, all day for the entire six weeks. This included vacations.
Bloustein recalled visiting friends in Maine for a vacation that had been planned before she was assigned to the 200K project. She and her husband arrived at their friends’ home on a Tuesday in July at about four in the afternoon. By 4:30 p.m., Blaustein was borrowing their office and their internet connection to attend a team meeting.
“This is the beauty of doing it all virtually, because I could do it just about anywhere,” Blaustein said. “I’d be at my mother’s house or I’d be at my sister’s house, and it was just something that became a part of my normal day to respond to WhatsApp messages, text messages or to attend virtual meetings.”
Consultants were also there for the callers when a conversation with a member was challenging.
“I was sort of the coach, the therapist, and the technical advisor,” Blaustein said. “One of my team members called me in tears. She just had a really unpleasant conversation with a member, and she just needed for me to tell her that it was going to be OK, that we have to be understanding of where everybody is. I suggested she take a break from her calls; perhaps take a walk to decompress.”
Blaustein believes she learned a lot from serving as a consultant to the 200K conversations program.
“As hard as it was, and as draining as it was, I feel like I could do any organizing because I really got a sense of how to encourage people and keep them motivated,” Blaustein said.
“Our roles as consultants were to support the members and to help them in whatever way we could to get to those 600 calls,” Quinn said. “And a lot of it, especially for my team, was just pumping each other up, being there for each other and having fun.”
At times serious discussions would arise between the consultants and the callers.
“Some members were really in crisis,” Quinn said. “That’s when we consultants would have to step in. We needed to know whether we should have the member reach out to their local president or their field rep. Maybe there was some other kind of assistance we could direct them to. We ended up making a ‘200K guide’ for the callers so that when somebody needed help with something, the caller could find exactly where to send the member.”
It was a growing document as callers and consultants identified needs. For retirees, especially those for whom the phone was a more likely way to connect than the website or email, lists with the names and contact information for the presidents of the county retiree education associations was added to the resource guide.
“A caller on my team might say, ‘Listen, I’m really worried about this person—she’s 90 and no one’s checking in on her. Can we have someone from the NJREA make sure she’s OK?” Blaustein said. “I would pass that information along, and someone from NJREA would email me back to say, ‘Thanks for letting us know; we went, and we checked on her. She’s fine.’”
“This was an intense program,” Blaustein said. “It was a roller coaster of emotions.”
Quinn and Stacey Williams, who was also a consultant on their Cumberland/Gloucester team, reassured their callers that it was OK to be more concerned with the quality of the conversations than achieving 600 calls.
“Stacey and I kept telling them not to worry about the numbers,” Quinn said. If they just put in the time they were going to be OK. We told them that it was more important to have authentic conversations. And everybody ended up reaching the 600 calls anyway.”
Supporting one another
Through team meetings, WhatsApp, and a Facebook group page, callers were eager to support one another. The Facebook page in particular became a place to ask questions and to share resources, ideas, successes, and stressors.
Virtual meetings and social media even became a place to figure out very practical considerations such days and times when members were more likely to answer their phones. Quinn noted that Morton shared with their team a checkmark system to gather data on various factors, including what days and times of day yielded more phone pick-ups.
“We started to see patterns for when people would pick up their phone,” Blaustein said. “Team members might say, ‘It’s raining, so I’m getting a lot of pickups today,’ followed by ‘Yeah, because nobody went to the beach today.’”
A key lesson of 200K conversations is that while NJEA members have a wide diversity of opinions, job titles, political affiliations, races, ethnicities and genders, they care deeply about their work and the students, families and communities they serve. Far more unites NJEA members than divides them. Members love talking about their work, and many calls lasted much longer than someone aiming to have 20 conversations a day really had time for.
Most members who answered the call, were delighted to receive a call from a fellow NJEA member, regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed with NJEA’s official positions on a variety of issues.
“Our members care about their association and each other,” Beatty said.
“What was amazing was that even though the caller could be from East Orange and they’re calling a member who works in Hunterdon County, there was always common ground because we all are working in a school environment,” Blaustein said.
Given that the calls were occurring during the pandemic, many conversations revolved around how members had navigated their work since March 2020.
Morton noted that early-career members, especially those whose first year of teaching occurred during the pandemic, had the fewest complaints.
“I’ve come to find out that those who had the least complaints were the ‘earliest’ of the early career members, because they really didn’t know anything but remote instruction,” Morton said. “But the other 95% of us were beat up by remote instruction. We didn’t like it. We’ d never wanted do it again.”
“I think sometimes we forget how important it is that every single member is able to give their opinion—to give their voice to somebody who’s listening,” Quinn said. “Our team was reaching out to people in Bergen County all the way from Cumberland County. They shared the same kind of stresses and the same kind of situations in their school buildings. And they felt more connected to their union than ever because there were people who on an individual basis were feeling just like us, even though they were in another part of the state.”
Morton said his most memorable called was with a retiree. He said the NJREA member was reluctant to talk until he realized that Morton really wanted to listen to what he had to say. He went on to tell Morton that he had just survived sepsis, an experience that changed his outlook on life.
Disabled by his illness, the NJREA member decided to sell things that he could no longer enjoy, including his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Rather than wait for a better sale, he ended up selling it to someone who could only afford half the asking price. If somebody wanted his prized possession, he was going to do everything he could to make it affordable for that person.
“He said it was because he realized how important life was and that we only get one chance at it,” Morton said. “Then he gave me some advice: ‘Make sure you tell people you love them and make sure you enjoy what you’re doing—tomorrow is not promised to anyone.’”
Caller Shaye Brown, a member of the Paterson Education Association, described the experience of being a caller as something of a reality check.
“It was a heavy summer, but it was such a thankful summer,” Brown said. “I’ve got to say it made me humble. You hear other people’s experiences, and it really does bring you back down to Earth.”
Brown noted that many members were grateful to talk to someone who knew what they were going through—from active educators whose spouses just heard their stories as complaints to NJREA members who had no one to talk to on a day-to-day basis.
One of the conversation prompts asked members what issues the member would like NJEA to prioritize.
“Is it COVID safety? Is it health care issues? Standardized testing?” Brown said. “We were definitely talking about those issues, but it was really about listening to the member. Really listening.”
Brown remembered one call that went on for over an hour with a member named Michael. He had recently retired but, according to Brown, he loved being a teacher and kept in touch with his former students.
Brown said that she and Michael talked like they we were old friends, even though they had never met.
“There’s just this camaraderie when it comes to educators,” Brown said. “What I loved is the call got even longer because after we talked about him, he asked me the same question I first asked him: ‘How are you doing?’ That’s when I realized that I needed this call as much as he needed this call. That was the call that made this 200K conversations program all make sense.”
That led Brown to talk about the importance of mental health for educators.
“Our mental health is really key,” Brown said. “But none of us were prepared for the situation we were thrown into when COVID hit. As educators, we talked a lot about social-emotional learning for our students, but no one was saying that we needed to look at our educators. Michael understood it on every level and showed that he was concerned about my mental health.”
With such long phone calls, Brown worried that she wouldn’t reach the goal of 600 calls. She nearly quit, but the consultants she worked with, Javier Fresse and Chris Cannella, assured her that she was on the right track.
“They told me that if a call goes into many minutes or an hour, go with it,” Brown said. “They reassured me that that’s what 200K is about.”
By the end of the six-week program, Brown exceeded 600 calls.
Caller Timothy Casale, a member of the Cherry Hill Education Association may very well have had the longest long-distance call to a member.
Casale spoke with a member who after only teaching a few years in a district in Burlington County moved to Nigeria to teach for there for two years.
“I was actually speaking to her in Nigeria!” Casale said. “It was 3 p.m. here and 8 p.m. there. We had a lovely conversation, and she probably could have talked for an hour or so.”
Casale also spoke with an NJREA member from the much closer Bergen County. They “instantly clicked” because she was a fifth grade teacher, the same grade Casale teaches. They talked for over 45 minutes while the retirees’ husband, a retired administrator, listened in the background. They covered curriculum, memorable lessons and classroom stories.
The retiree asked Casale where he taught and the name of his superintendent. She said she wanted to let his superintendent know of the “lovely chat” she had with him. Casale was pleasantly surprised to learn that she actually did contact his superintendent, who forwarded her email back to Casale.
“It made me think about the power that these conversations are having and how our members really do like to look out for each other,” Casale said. “One of my favorite organizing quotes is ‘Hope is a discipline,’” said Wegmann. “Through these 200K conversations, our member callers provided immense hope, and they spoke with members about their hopes for their union and for public education. We were disciplined in bringing hope during an incredibly challenging time in our lives. ”
Patrick Rumaker is the editor of the NJEA Review. He can be reached at
200K Conversations by the numbers
- 98 NJEA member callers completed the summer program
- 2 attempts (at least) to reach every NJEA member with a number on file
- 424,554 phone numbers were dialed
- 44,374 authentic, one-on-one conversations were held
- 703,000 minutes of conversation, that’s:
- – 11,717 hours of conversation
- 488 days of conversation