Duluth focuses on early career union activism

Adam Metzer, a fifth grade teacher at Laura MacArthur Elementary in Duluth, sees his union as a strong community, and wants to help maintain that strength.

That’s why Metzer said he joined the Duluth Federation of Teacher’s early career educator group.
Duluth was part of Education Minnesota’s first early career leadership fellowship cohort last year, and has continued on in their work this year.

The fellowship program was designed to:

  • Engage early career educators to grow as leaders.
  • Provide them skills and resources to engage other early career educators and identify and plan for a change.
  • Activate them to become formal and informal leaders in their local, state and national unions.

Bernie Burnham, the DFT president, jumped on the opportunity for her local to be a part of the statewide program.

“When I became president, I looked at the exec board, and they are all at the same place in their teaching career as I am,” she said. “We need to grow new leadership. We want to feel like we’re in good hands with these people.”

Burnham reached out to a few educators who were in their first few years of teaching and asked if they would be leaders of the group.

Emily Glomski, an elementary teacher, and Emily Lull, a high school teacher, were two of the people Burnham approached. They both had just started becoming active in the union, and saw the program as a way to bring new people into more active roles, too.

“It’s important that people are aware and able to get involved,” said Lull. “There was a drought of knowledge among my colleagues.”

Working with Education Minnesota staff and Burnham, the group started having monthly meetings, met with other locals in the cohort and started working on a leadership engagement and action plan.

“I got invited to participate last year,” said Jenny Ahern, a high school teacher. “I always thought of myself as a union person, but I realized I didn’t really know anything about it. We had great discussions, and it has paid off this year, with more people excited about joining.”

The leaders of the group are also finding it is great way to be more involved.

“Five or six years ago, Bernie approached me to be a building steward,” said Kellie Mulliner, an elementary teacher. “As I became more active as a steward, I realized there was a lot of information and things new teachers didn’t know about. I wanted to be a part of this group, even though I’m past feeling like I’m new, new members still feel comfortable talking to me. I want to be a voice for our next generation.”

The union group has been working closely with the district’s mentorship program, which run as a partnership between the district and the union.

They are planning a “you survived the first semester, now what?” meeting to discuss anything and everything that might be going on in the district before the end of the school year.

Members of the group went to the new hire meeting during workshop week at the beginning of the year and welcomed everyone on behalf of the early career educator group.

“The people we have present are connecting with other people, and it’s working,” said Glomski. “It feels good to have that outreach.”

They are also looking at the schools where new hires haven’t joined the union yet. Those new hires are at a majority of the schools that are not represented by someone in the early career group.

 “We want to continue to grow the group and have representation at every school,” said Mulliner. “Especially at the high schools that are big and have high turnover, we need to have that representation.”

The group has worked really hard to get out and recruit more early career educators to be a part of the union, and their team, said Burnham. They are a self-sufficient group, funded through the local union.

“It’s an entry-level way to be engaged with the union,” said Glomski. “Before it was you were a steward, an exec board member or nothing, but the more people that are aware of the union, the better. This is for everyone. People can feel like they are a part of it. It feels like it’s a great way to start the foundation that we all are a part of our union.”

Education Minnesota’s early career leadership fellowship program is in its second year.

Along with Duluth, the first cohort included Intermediate School District 916, Alexandria, Jordan and Osseo. The second cohort includes Alexandria, Forest Lake, Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted, New London-Spicer, New Prague and Osseo.

Program coordinator Allison LaBree said that all of the first year cohort reported much stronger union affinity and significant growth in both their understanding of and interest in their local union.

Preliminary data from the national program of early career educators, which Minnesota is a part of through the National Education Association and the Consortium for Educational Change, demonstrates that fellows have shown growth in the areas of leadership skills, leadership readiness and feeling connected to their local union.

In the area of leadership, fellows were asked to rate their instructional, policy and union leadership, and the greatest growth was a 4 percent increase in confidence as a leader within the union. There was also a 4 percent growth in their confidence to speak on education issues. Finally, the greatest level of growth was in the area of understanding the mission and vision of the local and how it guides their work (20 percent) and they know their leaders and feel connected to the local (22 percent).