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Union 101

Found in: Advice & Support

Union membership has its rewards. Just ask Arkansas middle school teacher Kristi Smith. One of her students thought it would be hilarious to remove a metal ring from a binder and wear it like a giant nose ring. When another student bumped him, the binder ring jammed into his nose and the student’s eyes instantly bruised and swelled. When the boy’s father saw the injury, he was furious and immediately threatened a lawsuit.

Enter the Arkansas Education Association (AEA). Smith’s state affiliate assured her of representation at all meetings. Her local UniServ director from the Springdale Education Association (SEA) would make sure she wouldn’t confront the problem alone.

“The irate father never did move forward, but I was relieved to have a contact person who knew the laws and could give me advice about what to do,” says Smith, a physical science teacher at Hellstern Middle School in Springdale. “My Arkansas UniServ director correctly predicted the father would back off since his child was acting inappropriately. Having a contact person provided by AEA/SEA relieved a lot of anxiety on my part.”
The Association serves and protects members starting from NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and extending to state, city, and town affiliates. But membership rewards go far beyond the legal protections most educators consider the main benefit.

If you’re ready to find out more about what you’ll get for your dues investment and how you can reap additional rewards through your involvement, here’s a primer on what Association membership means. (First tip: Your membership means you belong to the local, state, and national Association, just as Kristi Smith is a member of the Springdale Education Association, Arkansas Education Association, and NEA.)


Help on the Job
To become a better teacher, you’re off to a good start. Your Association offers members advice, training, and other assistance to boost skills in the classroom. These include teacher evaluation, mentoring, and tools to help prepare for certification tests.

The Common Core State Standards are a hot topic for today’s educators, and the NEA works with master educators and partners nationwide to offer tools and tips to help members put the new standards in place. NEA also is committed to ensuring educators have the voice and necessary input to help create the most effective assessments of the standards. 

A Strong Professional Network


There’s lots of formal assistance from the Association. But don’t forget that you’re also plugged into a network of people who have been there, done that. They know the kids, the administrators, and the parents, and they can help you do your best and avoid the minefields. You’re on their team and they’re on yours. If you don’t know the Association members in your building, call your local Association office. They’ll point you in the right direction.
The knowledge that comes from participation in professional development and from reading publications from NEA—like Tomorrow’s Teachers and NEA Today—helps new and veteran teachers model their classrooms and work environments after exemplary practices, says Smith. “Teachers also have peer groups from their district, state, and national members to bounce ideas off of and discuss best classroom practices.”

For help around the clock and on the spot, visit NEA’s Great Public Schools Network at It’s a free professional network for NEA members where you can collaborate with other members on professional issues; search for resources to enhance lesson plans and share ideas; read educational blogs and up-to-date educational news; share opinions; explore practical tools provided by NEA and other partners; and sign up for webinars and podcasts.

It’s an exciting time to join NEA. Recently, the Association issued a renewed call to action with the “Raise Your Hand” campaign—a national initiative to mobilize educators, parents, and community leaders who share our commitment to helping all public school students succeed. Tapping into their own passion and power, NEA members will join forces with parents, community leaders, and elected officials across the country to fulfill the promise of public education and prepare every student for a bright future. Now more than ever, our students need us and we’re mobilizing to take action for our students and quality public education. Find out more at

Just as Kristi Smith learned after her student’s injury by a binder ring, there are experienced advocates called UniServ directors who can advise or represent members in employment-related matters. If a legal issue arises, you’ve got at least $1 million in liability insurance as a member of the Association. If a principal accuses you of being ineffective, the UniServ director has your back. Now, while you’re in your first few years of teaching (usually three) you’re on probation and don’t have many of the protections you will get later on. But you do have rights. Association staff at your local office can tell you about them. Staffers can help you avoid situations that might force you to fight for your job.


Wages and Benefits Watchdogs
An experienced Association staff helps negotiating teams reach the bargaining table prepared to fight for pay increases and benefits. Staff do research and plan public relations campaigns to help the public understand the importance of adequately paying educators. Association staff train members to negotiate salaries and benefits. And the Association fights for members’ rights in Congress, the state legislature, and the school board.

Fighting for Fair Funding
Lobbyists who help legislators craft better education policy also make impassioned arguments for improved school funding. They tell legislators about the needs, interests, and priorities of teachers. For example, you’re not the only one talking about what’s wrong with the drill-and-kill testing regime. NEA lobbyists are fighting for more balanced assessments and other reforms you want to see in your schools. You can join them by taking action online and writing to your local representatives. It’s quick and easy at

Providing Educators with a Voice


But your involvement doesn’t end with understanding the work of your Association. A union’s strength and health rely upon the participation of every member. That’s why it’s important to understand and take action on the issues that affect you and your colleagues. To stay on top of education priorities, sign up for a daily digest of education news, or subscribe to NEA newsletters, delivered directly to your inbox.

Every organization depends on the collective power of members. And union involvement— adding your voice to a chorus of educator-advocates who want to make positive changes that affect the classroom and the contract—is the best way to improve the teaching profession and help communities of educators grow stronger.

Smith, in Arkansas, has first-hand experience with the power that can result when many educators speak with a collective voice.

Last spring, she enlisted the help of the Springdale Education Association president to help file a complaint against the administrator in charge at Smith’s school. “I organized 11 other teachers and set up a meeting with our superintendent of personnel to discuss the problems,” she says. “Each of us had contacted the superintendent individually with the same concerns, but nothing was done to correct the situation. But after our group of 12 met with him, we got a new administrator for the 2013-2014 school year. Strength in numbers and representation made possible through SEA made all the difference.”

Fun Perks and Even More Reasons to Join
You join for the professional benefits and the collective voice, but membership also brings other benefits. Through NEA Member Benefits, you can receive insurance discounts, reduced movie ticket prices, and coupons for stores like Target, Ann Taylor, and Best Buy. The NEA Foundation provides grants that help teachers get their projects off the ground. Educators who want a bully-free school can get posters and other tools through NEA’s Bully Free campaign at And NEA’s award-winning Read Across America program provides an array of tools that promote reading, including books, posters, and reading event planning resources. Find everything at, and visit for a free resource calendar app.

Ready to begin? Contact your state affiliate to find out how to join today. Welcome to the rewarding career of education!

 Illustrations by Charles Peale

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