Celebration and interconnection.
Those were the predominant themes that ran through the speakers and sessions at the MEA Summer Conference last week at Saginaw Valley State University.
“All of us have experienced so much in the past few years, but when I think about the darkest, toughest times, I think of one thing: Hope,” said Chandra Madafferi in her first remarks as MEA’s new president. “Together, we’ve pushed through – and now, this next school year is a time of rejuvenation and celebration.”
Guest speakers at the conference echoed Madafferi’s sentiments, including Speaker of the House Joe Tate, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and State Rep. Brenda Carter. More than 300 MEA members, leaders and staff from across Michigan attended the conference to get inspired and learn in sessions that improved skills as educators and advocates.
“Times have changed – those dark days are behind us,” Madafferi said. “It’s OK to take a deep breath. We all deserve that time to celebrate because we have to energize the next generation of educators.”
In reflecting on his own story – as the son of a teacher and a firefighter who died in the line of duty – Speaker Tate spoke of the importance of the education profession for students.
“I wouldn’t be here if not for educators, especially my mom,” Tate said. “My dad would always say, ‘If something happens to me, make sure my kids get an education.’ It was powerful, especially in this role now. The noble work you all do means something. You drive our society.”
As House Speaker, as an MSU football player and a Marine, Tate’s common thread remains that, “No person is an island – we don’t do this work by ourselves.”
“We’ve seen it in our society – how we’re interlinked and tied together,” Tate said. “Know that you all have friends in Lansing – we aren’t islands, we are all on the same team and we’re all working towards the same goal.”
That message was an important takeaway for attendee Elizabeth Bertucci, a school counselor in Adams Township. “Schools and the policies that impact schools will be something that impacts our students. Partnering and understanding those policies and the politicians who make them is really important.
“I am so inspired by the many educators, support staff and policymakers who continue to make strides to put students first,” Bertucci said. “The collaboration within our schools is so strong and that’s a benefit our students will see.”
As a former Pontiac school board member, Rep. Carter understands the importance of that collaboration, which is why she sponsored HB 4356 to restore collective bargaining rights for non-instructional staff around outsourcing of jobs.
“We restored bargaining rights back to our teachers – we restored bargaining rights for our support staff. Unions have been demonized and downsized for years,” Carter said.
“From the time my bill was introduced, I heard it as a former board member: ‘How dare you? That’s not what you’re supposed to do. What happened to you?’
“I woke up,” Carter exclaimed. “That’s what happened to me.”
In her remarks, Benson highlighted another area of privatization in our schools – driver education.
“Since privatization of drivers’ ed in our state, we’ve seen a real diminishment of that access – and we all pay the price, because we need to make sure our young drivers are ready to be safe drivers on the road. All the data shows that we best do that by returning drivers’ education to public education,” Benson said.
Since 2004, Michigan has relied on private driver education providers – and the cost and logistics have been prohibitive for many families. Benson shared news about a voluntary grant program under development at the Secretary of State’s office to help schools, particularly in underserved areas, with expenses to become a driver education provider and hire instructors.
It’s a critical change for our communities according to Birmingham paraprofessional Robyn O’Keefe. “It will be transformative for so many students and families who have struggles accessing private, for-profit drivers’ education. Our schools are the center of our communities.”
Benson also spoke about the critical role educators play in protecting our democracy, including helping to spur young people to vote through programs like MI Vote Matters, which registers young voters through schools. She said educators partnering with programs like this have helped Michigan lead the nation in young voter turnout.
“Imagine what would happen if more young voices were injected into our electorate as they rightfully and duly should be,” Benson said. “It would help us transform policies across the state and ensure young people are fully empowered and represented.
“When the truth and the facts and the law rules the day, then democracy wins. You are saving our democracy with the work that you are doing.”