By: Tim Walker, Senior Writer Previously Published in NEA Today, Edited by Giovanna Bechard

“Right here in Florida, we will preserve and strengthen a democracy that was steeped in the power of ‘We the People,’” says NEA President.

Six thousand united and determined educators assembled in Orlando, FL in July for the 2023 National Education Association Representative Assembly (RA).

It was the first full in-person NEA Representative Assembly (RA) since 2019, and the delegates made the most of it. Over a fast-paced and eventful four days, they took strong stands—including a pledge to protect LGBTQ+ students—rallied against book bans and censorship, debated new policies, honored their most celebrated colleagues, and listened to other inspiring speakers, including the President Joe Biden and the First Lady Jill Biden.

The atmosphere around this year’s RA was sober but also defiant. In 2022, educators and their students had just begun to recover from the pandemic before politicians, seeking again to delegitimize public education, waged an unprecedented campaign of censorship and intimidation on America’s classrooms. That effort was led largely by politicians in Florida, which made it all essential to bring the fight to these destructive policies in Governor Ron DeSantis’ backyard.

Florida is “our ground zero for shameful, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric and dangerous actions,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in her rousing keynote address on day one of the RA.

It’s not just lawmakers in Florida and in other states. The U.S. Supreme Court, with recent rulings on affirmative action and student loans, is also pulling the nation backwards, Pringle noted.

“This is the moment, with the residue of the pandemic lingering, with our psyches still fragile, that we must try to make sense of all that we have lost—and all that we have learned,” Pringle said. “I will always remember the tearful yet defiant Florida educator who expressed the concerns of far too many, telling me, ‘I can’t teach like this. I refuse to.’”

“Unbowed and unbroken, and with a resolve that is unwavering, NEA, you are leading the work to promote, to protect, and to strengthen public education!”

NEA President Becky Pringle delivers the keynote address at the 2023 NEA Representative Assembly.
NEA President Becky Pringle delivers the keynote address at the 2023 NEA Representative Assembly.

Maine Educators in Orlando

Bobbie Thibodeau (Portland EA) on the right.

The Maine Education Association sent a group of educators from across the state to Florida to participate in in the NEA RA and be part of the discussion on how together, we can have an impact on our public schools and better the lives of our students. For some MEA members, this was their first time attending the NEA RA. Bobbie Thibodeau, a middle school teacher from Portland, explained how the event helped her grow as an educator.

“One of the highlights for me personally was working with APIC (the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus). Our caucus met during each lunch break. Through this group I connected with an educator from another state who had submitted two NBIs (New Business Items) that essentially would create pathways to address some of the current challenges faced by BIPOC educators- pathways that do not (yet) exist within our current systems and structures. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to be there, to be able to work alongside her and other educators from across our nation to successfully move those two NBIs along. I’m coming away from my first NEA RA feeling like I was able to help direct a bit of the power of our union in a direction that could create a significant positive impact on the work experiences and outcomes of BIPOC educators in every corner of our country. There were many meaningful and inspiring parts of the NEA RA experience- awe-inspiring award ceremonies, incredible guest speakers, 90+ important NBIs to debate and vote on, but the opportunity to participate in this caucus… to be able to connect and collaborate to solve challenges that can’t be overcome alone… that was precious to me.”