Gina Harris speaks during an Illinois Education Association annual meeting in April following her election as one of seven directors for the more than 130,000-member education union, which is an affiliate of the nearly three million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. || Courtesy IEA/flickr
Friday, May 6, 2016 || By Michael Romain
Gina Harris, a bilingual resource teacher at Emerson Elementary School in Maywood, was elected last month to represent the more than 130,000 members of the Illinois Education Association.
The IEA is an affiliate of the nearly three million-member National Education Association — the country’s largest teachers union, which represents working and retired public school teachers, support professionals such as bus drivers and teacher’s assistants, and college and university staff members, among other education employees.
“My mom is through the roof proud,” said Harris during a recent phone interview. For the single mother of two daughters, though, the high honor is all about the work.
“For me, just being in the work is monumental,” Harris said. “The position is just another opportunity to be in the work of supporting what students need. I don’t feel like the position is about me.”
Harris was elected to the position of director, one of seven from Illinois, on April 16 during an IEA annual meeting. Around 1,200 delegates, who included teachers, education support professionals and faculty members, cast ballots in the election. Harris said she ran on a message of unity.
“I believe that, together, we can accomplish anything and I feel like we’re doing that already,” she said. “I talked about ways we’ve come together to make change happen for our students.”
As a director, Harris will represent the IEA’s membership during higher level conversations at the NEA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. She’ll serve a three-year term, which begins in September.
Her election, in a way, is the culmination of a personal odyssey that started a decade ago after she decided to start substitute teaching and volunteering in Maywood following a career in corporate America.
“The students really inspired me to start teaching full-time,” she said. “That’s where I got my inspiration and the heart to do this.”
The NEA was founded in Philadelphia in 1857 as the National Teachers Association by an alliance of state education associations. Zalmon Richards, the organization’s founding president, would play a key part in creating what would eventually become the Department of Education.
Throughout its history, the organization has been historically progressive on human rights and equality. The NEA opened its membership to blacks “four years before the Civil War” and elected a woman as president” a full decade before Congress granted women the right to vote,” according to the organization’s website.
Recently, the NEA has been a vocal critic of what its national president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, has called a “test and punish” education model that’s prevailed in most public school districts.
“For more than a decade, the prevailing model called ‘Accountability’ has been test and punish,” she wrote in a 2015 NEA task force report. “Punish the student; punish the school; punish the educator. It has turned into an excuse not to talk about the real issues of equity, access, and shared responsibility for the system.”
Harris said that, years before her election as a director, she had worked as a grassroots political activist in Springfield for the IEA. She currently chairs two IEA committees and has also served as a region council representative and local treasurer.
“I just feel that it’s important that everyone has a place at the table and we’re all part of the conversation,” Harris said. “We want to make sure all of our students being represented and their needs are being addressed.” VFP
Watch NEA national president Lily Eskelsen García hilariously explain what teachers do by clicking here.
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