By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President
It didn’t take long to determine that one element of strength in the La Crosse Education Association is its collective advocacy on behalf of students and public education. When LEA President John Havlicek put out the notice to his members to attend DPI’s public hearing on changes to licensure, more than a dozen of them turned out, including Sammie, one of the school’s trained therapy dogs accompanying LEA member Heather Stern. They addressed a gamut of concerns from boundary violations to the impact of broadening licensure, speaking with passion for their profession.
This kind of collective action isn’t surprising from the La Crosse Education Association. LEA members have never been afraid to act collectively and to speak up when changes in legislation that will affect their students and their profession are proposed.
Scott Graham, veteran educator and LEA’s teacher rights representative, credits many legislation changes over the past years with pushing their local to be stronger.
“We’re not going to let our local go away,” Scott told me. Scott mentioned strong leadership who worked to create a nucleus of educator members pushing for evolution in their local over the past few years. He is working to mentor co-leads to take over the teacher rights representative role for next year, quick to point out that the future leaders of the association need training and engagement in this work now.
The La Crosse Education Association is part of the NEA’s Early Career Leadership Fellows, a project dedicated to engaging the 35 and under group in La Crosse. LEA Vice President Teri Kendhammer is the lead on this project. She is proud of the excitement and empowerment that has come from this group of 5-7 who have been working together since August. Teri said that they have been busy interviewing those 35 and under about their passions in the education field and asking them what they want from their local association. Jesse Martinez, seventh grade science and social studies teacher and one of the Early Career fellows, said, “The main goal is to respond the needs of our early career educators.” He said that as themes have emerged from these conversations, the early career fellows are developing their approach with the district.
John Havlicek, LEA President, and Scott Graham agreed that their local remains strong because the La Crosse Education Association works collaboratively with the school district. John said that, “We work hard to build and maintain a professional working relationship that is supportive. It takes time to build that trust and continued conversations at all levels to keep the relationships strong.”
La Crosse employs a Joint Leadership model that allows for working together on behalf of students and staff. Scott said that the LEA surveys its members at the beginning of the year about concerns and then uses that information to bring forward suggestions with the district throughout the school year. In working on items that come to the surface, Scott said, “The district sees us as partners.” And, when their members saw a need for more consistency in dealing with challenging student behaviors, it was the LEA that pressed on this issue to find solutions. Scott pointed out, “By building relationships with administration, the LEA is able to ultimately do what’s best for kids.”
In a spirit of true collaboration, the School District of La Crosse has partnered with the La Crosse Education Association to co-host the Western Wisconsin Education Conference. This regional conference includes training that is “by teachers and for teachers,” John told me.
The La Crosse Education Association believes that high-quality professional development most relevant to educators happens when educators are engaged in the planning and presenting. John shared with me details regarding the conference, including the three strands to the training: technology, social and racial justice, and trauma-informed teaching. Over 750 people signed up to attend, many from La Crosse, but including other districts in Western Wisconsin, like Gale Ettrick Trempealeau and Holmen. This partnership between the LEA and the School District of La Crosse is a benefit to the students across Western Wisconsin.
Given all of this, it is no surprise that membership levels in the La Crosse Education Association remain high, hovering right around 80 percent. Teri Kendhammer, VP of the LEA and membership chair, works systematically on recruitment and retention, viewing this as a year-round task.
“Every building rep takes membership seriously,” Teri said. Her philosophy on recruitment is, “A no today may not be a no tomorrow. We just haven’t given some of our potential members the reason to join us, yet.”
Teri went on to say, “In the LEA, we will keep doing what’s best for kids and inviting our colleagues to join with us in our efforts.”