By Kiersten Perks, Rutgers University Camden
I have wanted to be an educator for as long as I can remember. I could never see myself doing anything else so when I attended community college after high school, it made sense to get my associate’s degree in education.
When the time came to transfer to a four-year school, I sought one that either had an Education Department or a Teacher Preparation Program. I had never heard of NJEA Preservice, formerly NJSEA, until my senior year of college. Somehow I managed to spend roughly six years in college with the intent of becoming a teacher and never heard of it. I had no idea about the NJEA Convention, what the union was, what it did, or any of the opportunities on which I was missing out. If only I’d known.
The first time that I learned about NJEA Preservice was when one of my professors asked in class if any of us was going to NJEA Convention in Atlantic City. Most of my classmates wore an expression similar to the one that I wore, which was something of a cross between confusion and intrigue. I went home that day, looked it up, signed up, and booked a room.
I had the luck to be staying at the same hotel as the NJSEA Ambassadors. They are students on campuses throughout the state who promote NJSEA and what it can provide to future educators. I also was fortunate to be rooming with someone who had been an ambassador. We attended a networking event, and I met the other ambassadors.
Convention is a big event, and I felt overwhelmed on my first day. When I told one of the ambassadors that I met about how I felt, she said she had felt the same way her first year and it would get easier. It felt like someone had put air back into my lungs and I could breathe just by having someone validate my feelings and tell me it would get easier.
I spent the rest of that night with the ambassadors and it was like being surrounded by family. They joked around, cheered each other on, and welcomed anyone who approached them. I knew that I wanted to be an ambassador because I wanted to do for someone else what they had done for me that night.
The next day, I went and attended workshops by myself but it wasn’t long before I saw familiar faces. I checked out the exhibit floor, attended a workshop about dyslexia, learned more about guided reading, and bought so many books that I could barely carry them. I was completely sold on being an ambassador and as soon as the email came out that included the application for it, I couldn’t submit it fast enough.
I have done more as an ambassador and as a member of NJEA Preservice in the 10 months that I have been involved than I had previously done throughout my entire college career. As soon as I became an ambassador, one of the chairs asked me if I would be interested in attending the NJEA Walter J. O’Brien Legislative & Political Action Conference. Then she suggested that we attend the Early Career event hosted by Central Connection—an NJEA member group in central New Jersey—the night before.
I also attended the Northeast NEA Regional Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts, did another Early Career event with some of my ambassador friends, attended a conference held just for NJEA Preservice members, and then attended the NEA Student Leadership Conference.
NJEA is very generous in the invitations it extends to Preservice members. I attended an LGBTQIA workshop in Gloucester County. NJEA Preservice members are invited to attend County Legislative Action Dinners as well.
The event opportunities and traveling are great but the most useful benefit of joining NJEA Preservice for me has been the network of aspiring educators that I now have at my fingertips.
NJEA Preservice is made up of aspiring educators from all different colleges throughout New Jersey, which is especially important as our state is in the process of expanding the requirements for becoming a teacher. I have not completed edTPA yet, but I will be doing it for my student teaching this semester. I am fortunate enough to have the support of NJEA Preservice as I go through it and fortunately, some of the members have already done it.
There is something about wanting to be a teacher that is difficult to explain to someone who is interested in a different professional field and when I am surrounded by aspiring educators like myself, I feel inspired. In sharing my story, I am asking you to continue the sharing in hopes that those you know will be inspired to be as fortunate as I have been.