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Wondering What's Possible When English Teachers Join Forces? Take a Look at NCTE's Affiliates!

by Lorna Collier

Making Connections—NCTE Affilates

In 2006, Erin Miller was working in her first English teaching job at a small school in rural Iowa, and she was the sole eighth-grade teacher. She felt overwhelmed and, she says, “not really connected to anybody.”

Two years later, Miller moved to a bigger town—Ames, Iowa—to take a high school teaching job. There she found out about a statewide professional organization for teachers, the Iowa Council of Teachers of English–an affiliate of NCTE. She joined and, that fall, attended her first ICTE conference.

“It was the first professional development I had that was meaningful,” recalls Miller. “It was so refreshing to realize that hey, other people are struggling with the same things or are thinking the same or are pushing me to think differently.” She also met some of the people “who really shaped who I am as an English teacher.” 

Today, Miller is president of ICTE, which represents about 185 Iowa teachers. One of the group’s objectives is to reach out to teachers at smaller, more remote schools in the state, where only one or two people comprise the entire English department and where teachers may not know about the Iowa affiliate or the help it can provide.

Connecting teachers with one another is one of the main goals of NCTE’s more than 70 affiliates (plus 30 student affiliates) in North America. This is true whether the teachers are new or veteran, working at small schools or large ones. Affiliate chapters are a way for teachers to support each other, share resources, and solve common problems. 

“Nothing has made my teaching career more meaningful than having other teachers ready to ask questions and think about answers with me,” says Millie Davis, NCTE’s senior developer for affiliates. “I found this through involvement in my local affiliate. . . . Affiliates continue to provide educators with that local connection so vital to the work we do.”


In this article, we focus on three award-winning NCTE affiliates that demonstrate what’s possible when English teachers join forces.

 

Fighting Censorship and Advocating for Teachers

Affiliate: VATE: Virginia Association of Teachers of English

Members as of 2016: 330
Website: www.vate.org

Last year, the Virginia state legislature passed a bill requiring schools to notify parents of “sexually explicit” material being presented in the classroom and allowing students to opt out. The bill was prompted by a parent upset that the Toni Morrison novel Beloved had been assigned to her child.

Fearing that the bill would result in book labeling and censorship, NCTE’s Virginia affiliate, VATE, joined with other organizations to urge Gov. Terry McAuliffe to veto the legislation. VATE board members met with aides from the governor’s office, wrote letters to the editor, contacted state legislators, and asked its members to speak out against the measure. NCTE staff also provided support. The governor vetoed the bill. 

This fall the same language turned up as a proposed amendment to the SBOE school board regulations. VATE went to bat again with letters and testimony before the board. The amendment was defeated.

“It took a lot of determination, persistence, collaboration, and action” to win the veto, says Tori Ostot, past president of VATE and eighth-grade English teacher at Queens Lake Middle School in Williamsburg, Va. “It is our job as a professional organization to take up the causes of schools, students, and teachers not only in terms of English education but in terms of literacy in all areas,” she says. “It is essential that we protect the rights of students to read and write.”

VATE earned NCTE’s Kent D. Williamson Affiliate Award for membership this year, increasing their numbers more than 33.9 percent from 2015 to 2016. Kelly Trump, VATE’s 2016 president and a seventh grade English teacher at Amelia County Middle School in Amelia Court House, attributes the rise to the group’s increased social media presence and outreach to preservice teachers. Also, VATE doesn’t require its members to live or work in Virginia or to be K–12 English teachers; members include college professors as well as K-12 educators.

“We accept anyone who believes in the importance and power of English education,” Trump says. 

VATE plans to continue to advocate for Virginia teachers and to “be a bigger presence in our state legislature,” says Trump. Other goals include offering more professional development outside of its annual conference (such as through its regional EdCamps). It also hopes to partner with more colleges and preservice teacher organizations.

The affiliate encourages literacy by sponsoring a statewide competition for K-12 students called the Literacy Explosion. Kids create digital products about favorite books—such as posters, podcasts, and book trailers—then present and discuss their projects before a panel of judges. 

Upcoming new initiatives include a mentoring program to pair veteran teachers with newcomers; using social media to promote VATE (teachers take selfies with VATE posters posted in their classrooms and workrooms); and a revamp of the website, to be unveiled in 2017. 

“I’m excited about where we are headed,” says Ostot.


Staking Positions and Opening Doors

Affiliate: Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (OCTELA)
Membership as of 2016: 1,830
Website: www.octela.org

What should schools do with students who don’t pass a third-grade reading test – should they be kept from advancing to fourth grade? Do gay and transgender students have the right of inclusion? 

These are just two issues that the Ohio NCTE affiliate, OCTELA, recently explored in position statements posted on its website. Typically, affiliates leave position statements to NCTE, notes Millie Davis. But OCTELA believes part of its mission is to take stands that reflect its members’ views and concerns. 

“We have to take a position on things that we have concerns about—both positive and negative,” says Virginia McCormac, a retired English teacher and OCTELA past president. 


OCTELA monitors legislation and works with a liaison from the state board of education to stay informed about measures that may affect its members. Board members also listen to concerns and frustrations expressed by attendees at its conferences, says President Michelle Best, an eighth-grade ELA teacher at Austintown Middle School in Austintown. Members then meet in small groups to craft statements, which are sent to the NCTE Affiliate Office for input, then voted on by the affiliate's full executive board.

Once completed and posted, the position statements “don’t just sit there dormant,” says Best. They are presented to state legislators. “We go to the statehouse and we try to have conversations with our legislators.” 

She sees OCTELA as “fighting for this profession of education. We believe in this and we are the voice of many.” She hopes teachers “will see that we are listening to them and we are taking official stands; that we do have their back and are representing them and being their voice higher up.”

OCTELA also regards itself as a prime source of professional development in literacy for all content-area teachers. Core standards require all content teachers to teach reading and writing, notes McCormac. “However, they are not trained.” So, the affiliate has been spreading the word about its services to all teachers and has expanded the scope of its conference content to include non-ELA teachers as well as those at the pre-K and college levels.

“One of the things we do best is we reach out to everybody,” says McCormac.

Easing Isolation through Social Media

Affiliate: Iowa Council of Teachers of English (ICTE)
Membership: 185
Website: www.iowaenglishteachers.org

About two years ago, the Iowa Council of Teachers of English began beefing up its social media presence. Its Twitter account became more active, with more members given authorization to post and encouraged to do so more frequently. The affiliate ran its own #Edchat (and hopes to do more in the future).

But perhaps most significantly, it expanded its Facebook presence beyond its public page to include a private Facebook group open not only to Iowa English teachers, but to anybody with a connection to education and interest in ELA instruction, no matter where they live; membership in ICTE also is not required. And because it’s private, those who join feel more comfortable opening up about their problems and concerns.

“It’s one of probably the most supportive groups that I’ve been in on Facebook that’s furthered my educational practice and ideas,” says Kirstey Ewald, conference chair and English teacher at Charles City High School in Charles City. “It’s just nice to connect with other folks who are doing the same thing you are doing.”

The Facebook group helps extend ICTE’s reach beyond its conferences to those who can’t attend, plus keeps the connection going during the rest of the year. “The Facebook group has been a huge game-changer in building our capacity to work together,” adds Jennifer Paulsen, past co-president and English teacher at Holmes Junior High in Cedar Falls, Iowa. 

ICTE recently started offering “EngCamps,” its version of an EdCamp. The most recent one was in August, right before the school year started, and was promoted on its Facebook page. About 60 people showed up for the free, one-day event in greater numbers, including many newer, younger teachers than usually attend conferences; veteran teachers also came, too. “It felt a lot like our Facebook page—only in person,” Ewald notes.

Besides social media, the group uses other digital tools, too, such as Constant Contact to create email newsletters, membership reports, and invoices, and to register members for the conference. ICTE uses Google Forms to track awards and WordPress to host and manage the group’s website, which has expanded to include more promotion of its teachers. A new section features teacher writings, while another includes profiles of member teachers, all designed to create a stronger sense of community within the organization. 

“We just really strive to connect everyone in Iowa so nobody’s isolated,” says Paulsen. She would like ICTE to be “the place teachers turn to when they need support or they have questions.”


Lorna Collier is a freelance writer and editor based in northern Illinois. 

 

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