Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by NEA Executive Director John Stocks to the 95th NEA Representative Assembly

Good morning. Thank you, Lily, Becky, Princess, members of the Executive Committee, the NEA Board of Directors, delegates, special guests and NEA staff.

Today, I’m not going to deliver the kind of speech that many of you have become accustomed to over the years.

I really want to talk with you about the future of our great union… and the kind of union that we want to leave to the next generation.

All of us are so fortunate. We inherited a strong and powerful union from those who came before us.

I want to recognize all the retirees in this hall. Please stand. These courageous leaders fought for many of the rights that we hold sacred today.

But even more, they reimagined what the union could be. They merged the NEA and the ATA. They embraced collective bargaining. They created UniServ. And, they had the audacity to demand respect for every educator.

Their generation believed in something bigger than themselves… and because of that they changed the course of our history.

Now, it’s our turn. We want to make sure that our generation’s legacy is worthy of their great sacrifices… and their triumphs.

And we want to make sure our own contribution is transformative and powerful enough to capture the hearts and minds of the next generation.

Today, we face many of the same challenges that these trailblazers confronted. But we also face some new ones.

Let me talk about what change looks like in our public schools by giving you a window into the life of an 8-year old boy named Luca. His story might be familiar to you.

On a recent weekday morning, Luca got up early to get ready for school. He stuffed his worn out clothes into a paper bag and then he raced down the steps two at a time to his bus stop.

His bus driver, Mr. Baxter, is there waiting for him, just like he is every school day. He swings open the door and greets Luca with a wide smile and a wink and quietly slips him a book to read during the ride so that Luca can work on his English.

When he gets off the bus he is greeted warmly by Ms. Harris, the family school coordinator. She arrives early every morning to unlock the gym so Luca can shower and brush his teeth because the water at home isn’t reliable.

Ms. Harris has known Luca since he first arrived in the country six months ago with his mom. She helped them find housing and health care services. And she created a support system for them because that’s just what she does.

This particular morning, Ms. Harris walks Luca from the gym to the school cafeteria. She knows he will get a nutritious breakfast from the dedicated food service professionals who treat every child as their very own.

Luca then races to his classroom where he makes a beeline for his teacher with outstretched arms. Ms. Ryan smiles and greets him with a big bear hug.

Ms. Ryan has gotten to know Luca very well over the last few months. That’s because she stays late most afternoons to help him with his homework.

Luca’s learning disabilities and limited English make it harder for him to keep up with the other students.

But Ms. Ryan doesn’t mind staying late to help him because every time she sees his eyes light up, she knows she’s gotten through to him. And that makes it all worthwhile.

Every day Luca tells his mom how much he loves his teacher. He says he is fairly sure he’s going to marry her someday.

Sisters and brothers, the story of Luca’s experience is your story, too.

It’s the story of every educator like you who, in spite of all the challenges you face, find ways to inspire the students you nurture, you mentor, you feed, you clothe, you teach, and you love.

And, in the process, you draw inspiration from them.

I know each one of you could tell lots of stories about how you work together every single day to meet the needs of the whole child.

The truth is that there are a growing number of students like Luca entering our public schools.

I often tell people that if you want to know what our future is going to look like, look at our public schools. That’s where change happens first.

Today, more than half of our students are living in poverty.

The student body is more economically diverse, more culturally diverse, and more racially diverse. And despite all you do, our schools are ill-equipped to meet the unique needs of many of these students, all of whom bring with them the beauty, richness, and diversity of our humanity to our schools.

The changes we face go well beyond the school walls.

Every day we see major political and societal changes taking place here at home and around the world.

I suspect that there are many in this hall just like me who have stayed up late at night, worried about what the future holds for our children, frustrated by a political system that seems hopelessly broken, anxious about the growing threats around the world, and deeply troubled by the direction of the country.

These forces at work are economic, demographic, social, political, and technological.

Confronting any one of these changes would be difficult under any circumstances.

But the fact is we are dealing with all of them at the same time. On many days it’s simply overwhelming.

Some of you are old enough to remember the “I Love Lucy” show. Do any of you remember the episode when Lucy and Ethyl got a job at a chocolate factory? Their job was to wrap the chocolates as they passed by them on a conveyor belt.

It all seemed easy at first. But, then, the conveyor belt sped up and the chocolates started flying past them. When Lucy and Ethyl heard their supervisor coming, they started stuffing the chocolates into their mouths and in their hats and inside their dresses.

And all the while the belt just kept moving and the chocolates kept coming.

Some days… I feel just like Lucy and Ethyl.

If it sounds like I’m making light of all that we are facing, it’s only because I want you to know that there’s nothing wrong with feeling anxious or overwhelmed by all the changes we are experiencing. They are unprecedented.

We have every right to feel the way we do—as long as it doesn’t mean we sit back and do nothing. Change is inevitable. Progress is not.

If we want to change the course of our country and our schools, we can’t wait for someone else to do it.

Change has to start with us.

All of you in this hall today are here because you are leaders of this great union. We owe you a debt of gratitude for all you have done for our students, for our union, and for our country.

But we have to face the fact that many of us are closer to the end of our careers than the beginning.

There’s a major generational shift happening in our workplaces—and it’s accelerating.

As my generation retires, millions of educators are entering the workforce – more than 2 million over the next 5 years alone.

This new generation has vastly different experiences – and different expectations – than ours.

For most of them, the civil rights and labor movements are something they’ve only read about in history books.

It’s clear to me that what worked for our union so well, for so long, isn’t going to be enough anymore.

If the union is going to become stronger during this time of rapid change, we must become relevant to this new generation—to help them meet the changing needs of their students—to help them be successful educators—and to tap into their idealism.

I am convinced that the only way we are going to grow and strengthen the union over the long-term is to engage with this new generation—and listen deeply to what they have to say and understand what they want and need from their union.

Once that happens, we must act and act with urgency.

Let me tell you why I know this work is so important to our collective future.

This past year I went into communities and conducted listening sessions with early career educators to learn more about them.

The stories they shared with me were deeply personal. They were inspiring and heartbreaking.

In each session they took turns telling my why they became educators, how much they love their students, and the potential they see every day to make a difference in their lives.

But they also talked about the difficulties they face…. 

Kimberly, a fourth grade teacher, said,I had no idea that it was going to be this hard…. Even when decision-makers ask the right questions, they don’t listen to us….”

Anna, a para-educator said, “I don’t feel supported… not by the people in charge… and definitely not by our politicians…. Some days I feel like I’m a parent, a social worker, a nurse, a counselor, and an educator all at the same time. And, yet, no one wants to acknowledge all that we do or find ways to support us.”

Tom, a first-year science teacher, said, “I’ve always thought of myself as resilient. But I have to be honest with you: Every school day I wake up overwhelmed and I go to bed overwhelmed…. I feel like I am under water. I’m in survival mode.…”

These early career educators aren’t alone. Over and over again we heard the same thing from other educators—thousands of them. They are drowning. They are discouraged. They are dissatisfied with their working conditions. And they need more support.

Now, I want you to indulge me for just a minute. Think back to when you first became an educator—the first few weeks and months. Everyone here still remembers that time, right?

I want you to recall how it felt. Raise your hands if you felt fully prepared on Day 1. That’s what I thought.

Do you remember looking to other educators to get you through the tough times?

Well, now you are the ones this new generation counts on for support. They count on you. I know this because they told me over and over again. They count on you.

Sometimes, these new educators don’t even know that you are the union. They just know that you are there to share your wisdom and a sympathetic ear. They know that you will listen.

The simple act of listening to our members is the first step to giving these new educators a greater voice in their professions and in their union.

Every day educators bear witness to the needs of their students and they fight to give voice to their students’ stories.

It’s up to the union to give voice to theirs.

But to do that, we need your help.

So, let me tell you how we’re going to do it together.

In April our officers and I met with the affiliates to discuss how we could partner to talk to every single one of the 173,000 new hires coming into our public schools and universities this fall– every ESP, every teacher, and every higher education faculty member.

Yes, I said 173,000. One-to-one.

I know what you’re thinking…. You’re thinking Stocks is crazy.

It sounds a little crazy to hear myself say it. But our leaders and our staff around the country are all in. We’re calling it the New Ed Campaign.

Our goal is ambitious. But a lot of this work is already happening around the country and even here at the RA. I understand the National Council of Higher Education leaders met earlier to adapt the campaign to meet their unique needs.

The NEA Student Program is all over this. A few days ago 85 student leaders signed up to lead the effort on their campuses – and they are just getting started.

We need all of you in this room – every student member, every Higher Ed member, every ESP, every teacher and every retiree. We need you to take an active role to help your affiliates lead the effort.

We need your participation. We need your enthusiasm. And we need you to inspire others to join us.

You are in the best position to support them—to tell them how the union can elevate their voices, help their students succeed and fight for educators to have a seat at the table.

Remember, if we don’t define our union for these new educators, someone else will.

Listening to our members is one of the most important steps we can take to earn their loyalty.

The reason to focus so intently on early educators is straight-forward. It is the largest generation in our history. And we know these educators are being failed at every turn.

If we don’t reach out to them one-to-one and support them, our students lose, our schools lose, and our union loses.

This simple act is totally within our control. And it is one of the most significant ways that we can transform the union.

I learned this lesson in a powerful way.

During one of my listening sessions, I had an exchange with an educator named Adam that really stayed with me. He sat silent during most of the 2-hour discussion.

At the end, Adam raised his hand. He told me that he didn’t have much in common with many of the educators that were active in the union.

He made clear that he vehemently disagreed with the union’s politics.

Adam also said that he didn’t think highly of unions. He only joined the union because everyone else did.

Then Adam said that over the course of the two hours that night, he found himself wanting to learn more about the union and how he could get involved.

He was still incredulous that anyone from the national union might actually care about what educators like him have to say, especially since no one else seems to.

He said he just wanted to let me know there were others just like him who might feel differently about the union if they had a similar experience.

For me, sisters and brothers, that exchange showed the true power of genuine listening—engaging our members where they are.

Not telling them what they need, but asking them what they need. Not telling them what the union can do for them, but asking them how the union can help them.

These experiences confirmed for me that it’s time to stop talking and time to start listening.

And when we are done, we are going to give voice to all that our students need to reach their full potential, regardless of their zip code.

We are going to give voice to what our educators need to take back our professions.

We are going to give voice to what it’s going to take to create a just world—one that treats every member of our society with the respect and dignity they deserve, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

When this happens, sisters and brothers, we are going to leave a strong, vibrant, and powerful union to the next generation. One that we can all be proud of, because we built it together.

That is our charge. That is our responsibility to the millions of students and educators who need us to give them a greater voice.

And that is our legacy to the new educators coming of age who will someday soon fill this great hall, take up the gavel, champion the cause, and make their OWN history.