At Florida Education Association’s 2021 Delegate Assembly, we sat down with the newly re-elected leadership of FEA to discuss the challenges facing education in Florida right now and how unions can help to overcome those challenges as well as the officers’ vision for what public education should look like in the years ahead.
Andrew Spar, FEA President
Carole Gauronskas, FEA Vice President
Nandi Riley, FEA Secretary-Treasurer
Andrew Spar, President of FEA: Hi, this is FEA President Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools, be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit FEAweb.org/podcast.
Sharon Nesvig, Announcer: You’re listening to Educating from the Heart. Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents and students as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.
Tina Dunbar, Host: Hello, and welcome to Educating from the Heart. I’m Tina, and I’m here with Luke Flynt.
Luke Flynt, Host: Hello!
Tina: We have been so busy lately because we’ve been involved in a very important event. You know, every fall the Florida Education Association hosts its annual meeting called the Delegate Assembly, or the DA as some call it. At this event hundreds upon hundreds of members unite to discuss important education issues and policies. They elect leaders and set and organizational path for the future. Educators also take time to recognize important events. So, Luke, I’d like to open this episode by saying congratulations for 20 plus one years of merger.
Luke: Congratulations indeed. It really is a big deal. Let me give a little history lesson for the listeners that might not know that FEA used to be two separate unions of educators. Following years of competition between both organizations, the FEA United and FTP, the Florida Teaching Profession NEA, they decided it would be smarter to begin working together instead of against one another. After years of talk, the two unions merged into one much larger and more powerful organization in the year 2000.
Tina: And now 20 plus one years later the FEA is considered the largest labor union in the South, representing public school teachers throughout Florida. We’ve accomplished a lot since 2000, and we firmly stood together through adversity and some challenging times. Our success is directly related to our strong leadership.
Luke: To the newly elected leadership: Congratulations! And I guess where I want to start is at some point, everybody was just an infant in their union journey. Right? But before you even become a delegate or a local leader or a state leader, you make a decision to become involved in your local union. So share with us why did you decide to get involved in your local union in the first place? And President Spar I’ll start with you.
Andrew Spar, President of FEA: First and foremost, I grew up in New York, just outside of New York City. And my mom was a teacher and a member of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers. And so, it was just kind of in me, that when you come into the profession, you join your union.
And so that’s what I did. Right when we started out in the new teacher orientation, I joined, and about two years later in Volusia, they were offering, the district was saying, “well, all we got money for is a 1% raise.” And the steward, is what we call them in Volusia, the building rep. But the steward at the school, her husband was really ill, and so she was not able to be at school all the time. She was not as engaged and she’d, she couldn’t do this. So I called the office, I called the union office and I said, “Hey, what the heck’s going on with this pay raise, they’re talking about? We want some information.”
And so the next thing I knew, I was the steward in my second year of teaching. I was on our executive board in my third year of teaching. And the rest is history. You know, but it is a good history. But it really is about wanting to have a voice, wanting to know what’s going on, and I’ve always believed, and I still believe, and I hope even here at this Delegate Assembly, we demonstrated it.
The more information we have, the more we talk, the more we share experiences. The more knowledge we gain, the more power we influence, we get, and that’s, to me, what it was. That’s what it’s all about is having that knowledge, that power. People can’t take your knowledge away from you.
Tina Dunbar, Host: No, they can’t. Yes. Thank you, Carol.
Carol Gauronskas, Vice President of FEA: So, my dad was a New York state teacher, a social studies. I knew about the union, and I knew certainly about education, but I went to the Fortune 500 world of banking before doing what my dad told me to do, you know, 40 odd years ago: get into education. So, in 2000 my child started kindergarten. I never left. I volunteered first. I became a para in the school district, in that particular school. And I went nine years without anyone asking me “would you want to become a member of St. John’s Educational Support Professional Association?” But what happened was my dear friend, Kate, who had shared my classroom for a number of years, was telling me that the district was not playing nice—And we say “not playing nice in the sandbox.” And next thing I knew, I was showing up as SJEA’s bargaining session and getting mad, and then getting matter and then spitting nails. And our wonderful service unit director, Tammy Whitaker said, “Why aren’t you a member of SJESPA?” And I went, “what?” No one had asked, but I became a member immediately.
And the next thing I knew I was an elected officer, vice-president. We had a hole missing in the team. I stepped up and then, next thing I knew, my wonderful president had a family emergency, and I was bumped to president. The rest is history: a non-released president doing the work and then EBD, emotional behavioral self-contained disabilities classroom by day and SJESPA president the rest of the 24 hours.
Tina: Great. Nandi?
Nandi Riley, Secretary-Treasurer of FEA: Wow. So, my story is similar and different, if that makes sense. My father worked as a teacher, and I used to see bags and stickers that said BTU, I didn’t really know what it meant, but clearly he was a member of the Broward Teacher’s Union. And so, fast-forward, I swore I would never be a teacher because both my parents were teachers, and they worked all the time, but then I ended up being a teacher as well. And so, I started teaching in Gadsden County, actually. And one of my colleagues asked me to be a building rep right away. And I was like, well, what, what does that mean? “Well, you’re so friendly people like you, you know, you, you will be a good person to do this job.” And I was like, “okay, cool.” The next thing, you know, I’m at the DA [Delegate Assembly], and that was the merger.
So, I left the high school and ended up returning to FAMU [Florida A&M University] because I started there as clerical, finished my bachelor’s while I was working full time and then taught K-12, I mean high school and then went back to FAMU.
But anyway, when I got back to FAMU, when I was first a faculty member, I didn’t want to get involved. There were so many other things going on, but about four years in someone else asked me, “oh, I need you to help with whatever.” I don’t even remember what it was at the point. And I said, “well, it’s better to advocate on this level, because I’ve always advocated for other people.” I’m the oldest of eight. I mean, how do you be the oldest and not advocate? So, that was kind of in my blood and being a teacher was as well, even though I tried to avoid it. And so, here we are. I never thought I would be here.
Tina: And we’re glad that the three of you are here. I mean, this is a perfect time to have the three of you leading our organization right now. You know, member engagement is really critical to our success. Yet, these are challenging times right now for educators across the board for a number of reasons. Yes, COVID is part of it, but we know what was going on even before COVID started.
So, what words of wisdom, what encouraging messages would you have for our delegates here to push through and to be able to reach out to other members, to encourage them to get into the fold. Because it’s so important, as you all know and said.
Carol: You know, I would say right now we’re treating each other like an island because of Covid, and we are self-isolating. And this might be the time where I’m in my classroom where I would be saying, “this is where you need to actually gather your friends, your advocates, those that, you know, you are close to, gather them closer.” Don’t do this work alone. It is not a lonely job. It should be done with others who are like-minded, who want what is best for our children, what is best for our coworkers.
And it is right now, it’s…I can’t imagine, in all honesty, what all of you are going through in a classroom, on a bus, in a cafeteria with 250 people or children, and what you’ve all gone through in the last 18 months. So, as we’ve seen everyone trying to isolate, it has become difficult to member organize. It’s become difficult to get into buildings and visit, but now I honestly think if we do it the right way, if we do it with our masks, if we do it with a vaccination, whatever it is to make us feel the safest we can to get back out there and have that touch. And I will be honest being here today, this whole weekend, being able to hug-
Tina: Yes. Yeah. That was so good to see our members again in person!
Carol: It really is, and I’ll be quick to this. We’ve lost the human touch in 18 months, and that’s what we need to get back because in getting that human touch back and making our issues known again, because we’ve been silent because of such an emergency, I think this is the time we’re going to thrive like we’ve never thrived before as a union.
Tina: Nandi, what would you say?
Nandi: Well, I would say in addition to working together and making sure that we support one another, we are the biggest advocators for others, but we don’t take the time to take care of ourselves. And this is huge. And it’s so very important because if you can’t, if you don’t have the strength to take care of yourself, it’s harder to give to others.
And so you have to be whole to be able to give. And right now, more than ever, that is so important. So that’s the advice that I would give.
Tina: So hard for many educators to find the time to do that, though, with everything, all the pressures and everything coming at them. But that is very good advice. No doubt about that. President Spar?
Andrew: I actually had a conversation with one of our delegates, and she said that on Thursday, for the first time in 17 years, she was ready to give up and walk out. And then she came here. And she said that she felt so much better after just being around everyone in this room. When we set out to plan this Delegate Assembly, there was a lot of dialogue, a lot of conversation about whether or not we should be in-person.
And our local presidents talked regularly about the idea of being in-person and the protocols to take. And based on what we were hearing, we initially thought maybe we’d have 400 delegates here. And then about a few days ago, we started saying, “well, maybe it’s going to be a little over 500,” and we have over, we have 600, I think it was the final number, the 600 delegates.
So, to Carol’s point, we needed to connect. Yeah, we needed to connect, and to Nandi’s point, this is somewhat of a mental health break for us in some respects, interacting with others, being able to talk with each other is so vital. I’ve seen it on posts on social media, you know, at the end of the day, the work we do is vital to our democracy.
It’s vital to society. It’s vital to our kids. And what we need more than anything right now is first and foremost, to not let the politics of division interfere with who we are and what we want to accomplish.
What we are seeing at school board meetings, the disruptions that we’re seeing, what we’re seeing from politicians at the national state level: that’s not who we are as a country. That is a small group trying to drive an alternate narrative, an alternate universe. And you know, when people are in a time of need, especially kids and families, you know where they look? They look to us, and I think that’s a burden on us all right now, because they’re looking at us, and the problem is who do we look towards? That’s where we come in as a union. We are the family support for each other. We cannot ever, ever forget that.
Tina: And that is so, so true. We’re one big family, and it really is important for people to understand that when you get that push back from your principal or from your superintendent or anybody in the community (we were talking about this earlier) that means you’re doing what’s right.
Luke: Absolutely. I think that the ESP of the Year actually said it really well yesterday, Roosevelt McClary from BTU, who said “when they persecute you, they elevate you.” And that is exactly right. We have rightfully spent a lot of this Delegate Assembly celebrating the 20 plus one years of merger, but we thought no better way to end this conversation than by asking about the vision for the future.
20 or 20 plus one years from now, what does FEA look like, and what does public education look like? And, and this time, we’ll start with Nandi, but we’ll just go down the line. So, Andrew gets to answer at the end.
Nandi: So, I would love to have public education and employees in public education that are paid fair wages and don’t have to work two and three jobs in order to make a living. I also think it’s extremely important that we, and we are working toward that now of course, that we are not fighting off bad bills. We are working together to create what we need in order to move forward. And so, that is my vision, that it’s not running behind the eight ball. We are putting together legislation to work together and actually have a harmonious education system in Florida.
Tina: Awesome. Carol?
Carol: I want to see us move from 49th to first. There is no reason that we should have a public school program not be the number one public school program in the entire country, and our children deserve it. So, we need to elevate that because that means we have to elect the right people. We have to have the right legislation, so that we’re not being pounded on, that we’re providing what we need for our children, the resources and the pay for our support staff and the pay for our teachers. Absolutely hands down.
But I want to see 50% plus [union membership] in every public school building, not local, every public school building. Because if you can get to 50, you can get to 60, you can get to 70. And when you’ve got the majority you’ve got in any location, you’ve got the power. So, to our 150,000 members, I love each and every one of you, but we need 200, we need 300. There’s 165,000 teachers who got a bonus, maybe all 360,000 educators would have gotten it from the governor if we had that much power.
So, go home, grow your membership. Talk to the teacher next to you. Talk to the bus driver next to you in the bus depot, the cafeteria line, and get them to join. We are the largest union, but we will be so much bigger in this country, if we had 50 or 50% plus one in every building.
Tina: Yes, and that is power.
Andrew: And I’m going to tag on to what Carol and Nandi said, because they’re both a hundred percent right. And this is when we know we’re going in the right direction. We’re all right. But I’m going to go one step further. 20 years from now, we better damn well have over 90% membership in the state of Florida. Better damn well be the most powerful organization in America.
People need to be looking to us and saying, “how do you do it, teachers? How do you do it, support staff? How do you do it, higher ed? You are the experts, and we’re going to follow your lead.” That’s where we need to be in 20 years. And we need to be the people who are truly respected for the work we do, and not just in lip service, but in action, in pay, in how we’re treated in our workloads, in how our class sizes are, in our academic freedom in our rights to be able to do what is best for kids rather than what is best for someone’s bottom line. If we get there in 20 years, which I think we will be, because I think we’re on that path, then there isn’t anything we can’t do. And we will be viewed as the people who saved, not just public schools, but saved America.
Carol: If I can add one thing. We’re here because we’re standing on the shoulders of our retirees in that corner. We’re going to be the retirees in 20 years. It’s going to be on the young folks in this room or who are listening to this podcast who are going to be here working on public education.
So, thank you to the retirees for where you’ve been, so that we know where we’re going.
Tina: Thank you. I want to thank our FEA officers for participating, Nandi and Carol and Andrew. Thank you so much.
Tina: Luke, I just love their vision. If you listen closely, you know they will work hard to create a much better environment for teachers and support staff professionals. You don’t have to be a member to benefit from the work pf the FEA but imagine how much more we could accomplish with more hands engaged in activism for students, their schools and educators. Everyone in education benefits from the work of the FEA, and what better time to become a member of your local union?
Luke: There is no time like the present. A lot of people really don’t understand the support that is available for educators. Along with their local unions, there is support on the state level, and educators in Florida are very lucky that we have two national education unions: the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that advocate along with us. In the next part of our 20 plus one celebration, our national leaders will share how their life-changing work supports individual members right here in Florida.
Tina: Thank you for joining us for this month’s episode. Until we meet again, keep educating from the heart.
Primrose Cameron, FEA Professional Development: Greetings. My name is Dr. Primrose, Cameron and on behalf of FEA’s Professional Development and Educational Research Department, we celebrate members and students throughout the year with research-based and highly effective professional development. We focus on many areas to include curriculum and instruction, race and equity, professional growth, wellness and more. Feel free to contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sharon: “Educating from the Heart” is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators.