Union effectiveness: Listen and lead, says Rhonda Johnson

By Rhonda Johnson
President, Columbus (Ohio) Education Association

I entered teaching in 1978 at the culmination of one of the stormiest periods in Ohio labor history. I’ve seen the struggle up close. I also have seen progress born from a willingness to sit down and talk, to reframe questions, to listen to the answers and to compromise.

Much of this work began with my mentor, the late John Grossman, Columbus Education Association president for 26 years. When I earned election to that post in 2004, I inherited his spirit of integrity and a talented staff of classroom veterans with experience navigating the political landscape.

We strive to do the following:

  • Maintain focus on the important issues, such as teacher quality and academic achievement.
  • Step back when the climate demands it, and push for change when that is the best option.
  • Offer criticism – but have the courage to praise district leaders when they stepped up solve problems.
  • Keep the conversation professional and on point and the honor the contract.
  • Refresh the strategic plan and bolster it with data.
  • Invite the superintendent and administrators for open dialogue with educators.
  • Build strong community connections with the civic, faith, business and service organizations.

We continue to face tough times in our school district. Columbus City Schools have grappled with low academic achievement, fiscal mismanagement and competition from charter schools. We have lost students and closed school buildings. We have fought state legislators to retain union rights.  

The effort is worth it:

  • Our Peer Assistance Review program supports educators at all levels.
  • Our yearly educational conference features national leaders in the field.
  • Strong community connections have led to major reform plans supported throughout the city.

We have taken a leadership role in developing a reform model for struggling schools. We are grateful to the NEA Foundation for supporting this work with a $1.25 million grant. We urge our colleagues from across the country to seek NEA Foundation advice and grant resources. We also urge you to keep trying to become a leader in your community. The effort is truly worth it.

Rhonda Johnson has been Columbus (Ohio) Education Association president since 2004. She retires this school year and will begin a new job in June, as Education Director for the City of Columbus. She has represented NEA local and globally.



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