The Arkansas Education Association has been around for more than 100 years ensuring that every aspect of public education in the state is held to the highest standards. Executive Director Tracey-Ann Nelson says AEA’s purpose and mission is to “ensure that every single child in Arkansas has access to high quality public education.”
AEA currently has more than 10,000 members — not only educators but also education students and retired educators. While its member base can often be found in the front of a classroom, AEA advocates for all public service workers within the industry including bus drivers, school nurses, nutritional professionals and bookkeepers as well.
“Anybody in a school district that is doing work, we support them to ensure that their professionalism is at a high standard,” Nelson said.
AEA also serves as a pipeline for relaying that information to entities such as the Arkansas Department of Education in order to come up with solutions. While helping educators meet the state’s standards, AEA also helps to hold organizations like ADE accountable for instituting standards of the highest quality and in the best interest of the industry.
The association holds an annual professional-development conference in November and hosts regional and district training sessions based on the needs of the attendees. AEA also helps determine Arkansas’ Teacher of the Year.
“To me, making sure that people who are working in public schools are valued [is] probably the most important thing that we do,” Nelson said.
As the threat of coronavirus earlier in the year led to most schools deciding to close early or move to alternative platforms such as online learning, AEA has been busy discussing with members and legislators how to mitigate the repercussions of those early closures.
“During the summer, there is a natural occurrence of learning loss, but this year, we got out of school in March. Between March and August, or however long before schools open, we’ve asked, what is the learning loss that our kids have experienced and how we do that recovery in a way that gets them back on schedule in a way that nurtures their love for learning, so they don’t feel overwhelmed or frustrated and keeps them invested in learning?” Nelson said.
In what Nelson called a “Tele-Town Hall” with ADE and other AEA members, the social and emotional component of children who were faced with the presence of the virus came up in conversation as much as learning loss did.
“If they’ve lost a family member to coronavirus or people in their homes have been sick, we are concerned about the effect that is having on them,” Nelson said.
Healthy relationships with legislators have allowed AEA to continue having discussions such as these and keeping educators’ concerns relevant and heard.
Last year, AEA advocated against the loss of retirement benefits for educators.
“There was an attempt to [alter] retirement benefits for teachers and other public service workers, and we were successful at defeating that effort, which was a huge win for us,” Nelson said. “Public service workers in general — they don’t go into the work for the money and so what we try to say is, while they may not get the pay on the front end, they get the retirement support on the back end so that they are able to retire with dignity.”
This advocacy, which Nelson refers to as “the strongest muscle of the organization,” revolves around laws that ensure students around the state are able to get what they need whether it be a well-trained school bus driver, higher quality academic material or a more manageable class size. However, they also advocate heavily for quality academic environments.
“What we like to remind legislators is a student’s learning environment is a teacher’s working environment so those two really need to function for both to be successful,” Nelson said.
This often entails things like fighting for things such as quality pay for teachers.
“We need to show how important it is to invest in those spaces because that’s investing in our future,” Nelson said.
Another way that AEA invests in the future is by offering student membership for aspiring educators for $25 that includes resources and support.
“It can be challenging, and I usually find that it takes new teachers about three years before they actually feel really 100 percent comfortable with themselves in the classroom,” Nelson said. “It’s not just academics when you’re in the classroom; you’re managing kids’ emotions and their behavior; you’re managing parents and of course your colleagues and your administrator.”
Members of AEA also receive support in the area of student loan forgiveness.
“If you have student loans, you want to be our member because we negotiate a reduction of those loans for you — that’s a benefit in and of itself,” Nelson said. “We are constantly engaged at the federal level to reduce the loan debt for teachers so any kind of advocacy around student loan forgiveness, we do. So, it’s really important because we recognize how important the work of a teacher is.”