Former Susquehanna Township middle school science teacher Becky Pringle’s childhood passion for becoming a teacher has carried her all the way to the chair of the president of the nation’s largest educator union.
Pringle, 65, was elected earlier this month to this top post at the National Education Association for a three-year term. For the past 12 years, she has served the national organization as its secretary-treasurer and most recently, vice president.
In her new role, the Philadelphia native said her goal is to unleash the power of the union’s 3 million members in a movement to reclaim public education as a common good deserving of more resources to help every student succeed.
She assumes her new role on Sept. 1. She is the third Black female president in the union’s 163-year history.
Pringle takes over the union in a year when schools are trying to chart a course through the COVID-19 pandemic that keeps students’ education on track and everyone safe and when demands for racial equity have moved into the national spotlight.
Pringle, who taught at Susquehanna for 28 years, spoke with PennLive last week to talk about what has prepared her for this role and the work that lies ahead for her.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
“I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be a teacher, honestly,” Pringle said.
She recalled holding class on the front steps of her Philadelphia home with her older and younger sister every day after school.
“I’d teach them my lessons and if they got the answer right, they could graduate to the second step,” she said. “We had six steps. If they got to the sixth step and did everything right, they would get promoted to the first step and we would start again.”
How did she become active in the union?
When she started at Susquehanna, she wasn’t active in the union although she was a member. When her son turned 5 and was ready to start school, she found out the superintendent decided to address the district’s budget concerns by putting 33 kids in her son’s kindergarten class.
“That was unacceptable,” she said.
So she spoke up at a school board meeting in the high school auditorium and challenged the superintendent about that decision with TV news crews’ cameras rolling. Afterward, the local union president “came to me and said, ’Becky you need to be involved in the union. You have a really big mouth’. I wasn’t trying to do anything except defend the excellence that I knew Susquehanna Township’s history was rooted in.”
Later, she became president of the district’s teachers union.
How did your years at Susquehanna prepare you for your new role?
Pringle spoke of the good working relationship with then-district Superintendent Tom Holtzman, who earlier in his career had been the teachers union president in Harrisburg School District. Together, she said in the words of the late Rep. John Lewis, she and Holtzman “got into good trouble” working on an issue she had been active on since high school and throughout college: racial justice.
After noticing the disparity in the achievement between the district’s Black and white students, they launched the Math Science Challenge program to prepare Black students for taking higher level math courses through summer tutoring and exposing them to math and science careers.
She and Holtzman also collaborated on a transformation of the middle school to make it better at addressing the social and emotional needs that young adolescent students face during that time in their lives.
“We worked on it together and it was the first time the district really embraced the empowerment of our teachers in a way that allowed us to make some really high level decisions from the setup, the hiring, the curriculum and the budget,” Pringle said.
“We were ahead of the curve talking about collaboration and how we could work together, labor and management to improve teaching and learning. I look back on that now and I’m so proud of that work. That’s what laid the groundwork for the important work that I lead on at the NEA now.”
There’s a lot of anxiety surrounding returning to the classroom this year. Do you think teachers should be required to teach in person regardless of whether they feel it’s unsafe?
“We’ve been very clear from the beginning. If it is not safe – and it is not safe if you are in an area where the infection rates have not gotten low and been low for two weeks, it is not safe,” she said.
“It’s not safe if they can’t provide masks and other protective gear. It’s not safe if they can’t provide the sanitizing, ongoing sanitizing, the social distancing. It’s not safe if they don’t have a plan – not if, when – educators and students get sick and know what they are going to do. We’re already seeing that in Georgia, in Indiana, in Iowa,” she said. “The chaos that has been created by the lack of leadership and the false choice they are setting up for us as educators is unacceptable. So NEA is standing with our members who are fighting to make sure our students and their families … are safe so that they can learn and they can live.”
That includes grassroots efforts as well as legal ones including joining with the union’s Florida affiliate to file a lawsuit against that state’s Gov. Ron DeSantis for requiring schools to reopen for instruction five days a week.
As her first act as president-elect, Pringle said she is committing NEA resources to ramp up work around teaching and learning in a virtual environment and making sure teachers have the training and support they need to make their online lessons high quality and engaging.
In addition, she said the union will continue to push Congress to increase the e-rate program to provide more funding to buy access to the internet and digital tools for students who don’t have them as well as provide funding for coronavirus-related safety measures to ensure students and faculty when they do go back to school can do so safely and equitably.
Do you have any advice for parents who are faced once again in helping their child navigate learning at home part-time or full time this fall?
Pringle suggests parents, community members, even grandparents visit the website educationthroughcrisis.org.
“It is really our one-stop place for educators, parents community members, policy makers who want to learn more about how we are approaching and how they should approach to ensure we have safe schools. It’s also helping them advocate for equity within our schools. It’s also providing resources for educators on how to teach differently and at different age levels online. It has information and resources on the social and emotional learning of our students. We know that they’ve gone through so much trauma so addressing that and working with our parents,” she said.
Beyond that, she encourages parents to reach out to their children’s teachers for advice.
“Our teachers are just begging for that partner in the parents to help ensure the learning of their students continues,” Pringle said.
After your election, you posted a tweet that ended with “We are ready to turn up the heat.” What did you mean by that?
“It means we have to do more. In this moment we are called to do more,” she said. “So when I talk about turning up the heat, I’m talking about demanding in every way we can, using the vast collective power of 3 million members. You may not know this but one in every 100 Americans is an NEA member. That’s an amazing statistic.
“Now think about the power and heat we can bring if we are all united and we unite the nation … to fulfill that promise for public education to prepare every student, every one to succeed in a diverse kind of world. Bringing that heat means we are standing in our power, lifting our voices, engaging in collective action, whether it is … legal action, whether it is political action, flooding the office of members of Congress and our senators demanding that they provide the resources our students and our schools need to keep them safe and to finally, finally reckon with the inequities that have been built into this system.
“And by the way the other social systems that impact whether our students can learn. From housing insecurity to food insecurity to health care insecurity, all of those things that have compounded in this moment exacerbate those inequities. Bringing the heat means that.”
Speaking of inequities, what do you anticipate will be the “George Floyd effect” on education?
“I’ve been on this earth for a minute and been part of many movements and this one feels very different,” Pringle said. “No one could turn away from what they witnessed for themselves” in the video footage of the death of George Floyd while in police custody from a police officer kneeling on his neck cutting off Floyd’s air supply.
“It’s not like we haven’t been shouting it from the rooftops forever but they couldn’t turn away because they saw it. People, everyone in every community – Black, white, indigenous, API communities, Latinx communities – all of them are standing up and making an affirmative declaration that Black lives matter and they are doing it because they know they must.”
As for the role educators play in this movement, Pringle said, “I think our role and responsibility is to prepare students to be the leaders of a just society and we have to start from the beginning and instilling in them that sense of community, that sense of responsibility to lift up each other because in doing so, it lifts them up too.”
Since parents found getting their kids focused on learning at home to be quite a challenge, do you expect to see some silver linings emerge for those in the teaching profession?
Pringle shared she knows the school-at-home experience has had an effect on her son.
“He has a 7-year-old,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, your people deserve everything they need. Give them a million dollars. This is terrible. What they do with my son, I don’t know how they do it, but it is a miracle what they are doing with my child.’”
For educators, she said the hope isn’t just that people no longer begrudge paying teachers a salary commensurate for the work they do and the role they play in society in preparing future generations of workers and leaders.
“It is about respecting teaching as a profession and supporting that profession in a way that reflects an understanding that just because you went to school doesn’t mean you know how to teach kids, which by the way, so many people now know,” she said.
I can’t let this interview end without asking what message you hope your election as just the third Black woman in NEA’s history to be elected president sends to young Black girls?
“I understand the important role that women and Black women play in demonstrating to those who follow them what’s possible,” Pringle said. “We talk about that all the time with our students. It’s one of the major parts of our Math Science Challenge program at Susquehanna. We wanted our Black students to see role models. We wanted them to see themselves working as scientists so they could see what they could aspire to, that it was possible because so much in their lives in their community and media in everything says the contrary. So it’s important that they see us. It’s important that we reach back to them and help them with understanding that they can absolutely aspire to anything they want to be and that there are people there to help and support them.”
Jan Murphy may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.
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