WASHINGTON—American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten delivered a galvanizing national speech Tuesday honoring educators for their dedication during COVID and offering a full-throated push for reopening schools for in-person learning, community schools, project-based instruction, literacy and civics—including the teaching of critical thinking and accurate history.
Kicking off the union’s biennial TEACH professional development conference before an audience of thousands of AFT members and leaders, Weingarten celebrated students’ and teachers’ resilience and slammed the torrent of lies, misinformation and personal attacks streaming out of the right-wing echo chamber during the pandemic.
The leader of the 1.7 million-strong union underlined her vision for the next school year and beyond—to create a safe and welcoming environment to help students recover socially, emotionally and academically and to spark kids’ passion and critical thinking to fulfill the purpose and promise of public education.
“Educators have just been through the second-most challenging year of your professional lives. What’s the most challenging year? The one that starts this fall. It won’t be easy, and some people will try to make it harder, like those who have disparaged educators, scapegoated our unions and blamed us for things outside our control, like school closures caused by a pandemic.”
Weingarten pledged to vigorously defend teachers’ legal rights in states such as Texas that have passed laws to prevent them from teaching accurate history to their children.
“Mark my words: Our union will defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history. We have a legal defense fund ready to go. Teaching the truth is not radical or wrong. Distorting history and threatening educators for teaching the truth is what is truly radical and wrong.”
She rejected “the new culture campaign some lawmakers (and Fox News) are using to distort history, limit learning and stoke fears about our public schools.”
“Culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as critical race theory, to try to make it toxic. They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history. This harms students. These culture warriors want to deprive students of a robust understanding of our common history. This will put students at a disadvantage in life by knocking a big hole in their understanding of this country and the world.”
The five-day TEACH (Together Educating America’s Children) conference comprises more than 60 professional development sessions to help the nation’s educators recover and respond to a year marked by unprecedented disruption and inspiring resilience.
It features a bevy of high-profile guests over five days, including first lady Dr. Jill Biden, Fair Fight founder Stacey Abrams, bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi, Harvard University professor Danielle Allen, LiberatED founder Dena Simmons and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten, on issues including rebuilding academically from the pandemic and creating anti-racist communities.
Educators and leaders will explore meaningful tools and resources to emerge from COVID-19, discuss solutions to ensure students’ social-emotional learning and the freedom to thrive, participate in wellness sessions and have opportunities to collaborate with colleagues.
In her speech, Weingarten announced a redoubling of the AFT’s commitment to help members improve their instruction in literacy, noting that before the pandemic, under-resourced schools were already struggling to provide high-quality reading instruction and academic supports. “We can’t take a chance that students who have been marginalized will be further disadvantaged in the development of the academic knowledge and skills needed for strong literacy,” she said.
And she revealed a new initiative around civics—the AFT’s New Educating for Democratic Citizenship program—that aims to put powerful civics education tools directly into teachers’ hands. The union has selected 20 teacher fellows from three school districts—ABC Unified School District in Los Angeles County; Dearborn, Mich.; and New York City—to participate in this program. These fellows will work in cohorts to produce materials for civics education centered around inquiry learning and action civics, which will go into an online library with materials available through the AFT’s Share My Lesson.
Weingarten further underlined the importance of expanding and embedding community schools, calling for 25,000 more by 2025. And she zeroed in on the significance of project-based learning, calling on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to form a task force to rethink how to address both assessment and accountability.
She updated members on the AFT’s $5 million “back to school for everyone” campaign, with 40 projects already funded, encompassing 1,400 locals across 22 states.
Weingarten concluded on a hopeful note: “You are your students’ lifeline—you make it possible to connect what they know and what they can do. The past 16 months have been incredibly difficult. I hope you know that what you have done and what you will do are vitally important. We are in this together. Colleague to colleague, AFT member to AFT member, together we can do so much that would be impossible on our own.”
The full speech is available here.