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Virginia Journal of Education


Bursting the Bubble


A Frederick County school counselor attends an international conference of women educators.


By Shaniqua Williams

I felt I’d been living in a bubble. There are languages spoken in the world today that I’ve never even heard of. Young women in Kenya and other countries have intense struggles with being able to go to school and, even if they can, facing gender-based violence there.

Those are just some of the ways my eyes were opened when I attended Education International’s World Women’s Conference in Marrakech, Morocco in February. I’d never even heard of EI (the international teachers union with which NEA is affiliated) until I went to the NEA convention in Boston last summer, but I jumped at the chance to attend the conference. It was my first trip outside the United States.

As a member and now vice president of the Frederick County Education Association, I’ve been to many trainings and conferences, but nothing like this experience. I was missing a huge concept in the master plan of education unity: it extends globally, and I’d never thought of the education union as a global concept. My worldview has changed.

I love the family aspect of being involved in my education union, the experiences we share together, the happiness that comes with being around issue-driven and like-minded individuals. I saw people immediately making those kinds of connections at the World Women’s Conference. I was surrounded by many people from different backgrounds, from a multitude of nations, embraced in hugs, and it reminded me of attending my union’s national meetings and how we connect between states, except this was different, very different. Participants spoke joyfully in different languages. I was fortunate to be with NEA staff members who were able to help me communicate, and who helped me make connections with many young leaders from other unions and countries. It felt good to share stories of how education policies are handled in my country in comparison to theirs, and to review sessions we all attended and exchange thoughts.

Talking with the educators from Kenya was very sobering, as I learned firsthand of the work the NEA has done with them. I was blown away to hear of all the challenges their female students face; at the same time, I also was very pleased to hear of the direct actions and financial support that the NEA offers them in eradicating the negative climate in their communities. It broke my heart to hear them talk of their safety concerns. I will forever remember this conversation.

I’ll also cherish conversations I had with educators from South Africa, Cyprus, Australia, India and, of course, Morocco.

EI’s conference sessions were set up to include interaction from participants, and I had many opportunities for networking and exchanging ideas on topics. One of my favorite sessions was titled, Moving from a Single Leadership Model to a Collaborative Leadership Model. I went into it with a mindset of, “I know which one I agree with.” (Collaborative leadership, because we are better together, right?) Indeed, much of the information presented centered on how collaborative leaders can increase our results, we can feel strength in doing things together, and that the workload is shared. On the other hand, sharing the leader role can lead to conflict and quarrelling, and can force group conversations to go in the opposite direction of what needs to be focused on. Through the facilitated debate, my heart was softened, and I was able to see positives from each side. I later shared my views with some of the women I’d met and gained deeper insight into each leadership model.

“This is why I am here,” I thought to myself. “I’m not only growing through the chosen sessions, but the education leaders I am meeting are continuing to help me grow.”

Another session I attended, called Voice and Public Speaking, made me anxious in advance in both a good and bad way. I know this was a challenging area for me, but I intensely focused on the concepts and also took great value from the session’s individual/group assignment. It was an important opportunity for me to prepare a speech and to receive immediate feedback on it. We were asked to write a speech answering this question: Why is it important for the world to invest in women’s leadership and gender equality?

After thinking about why public speaking was hard for me, I realized it was because I never actually thought I had something worthwhile to say. I consider myself a person who knows a little about a lot of topics, and I feel refreshed and filled after conversations with others. This speech was all about me… and my thoughts...and go! To get ready, I observed a presentation that discussed in detail the parts of a speech: preparation, execution, and evaluation. After some preparation, I gave my speech to a partner and received her feedback, then heard her speech and provided feedback to her. My partner from the South African Democratic Teachers Union, Ayanda Khatshiwe, and I left this session feeling refreshed and hopeful for opportunities for public speaking as future leaders in our respective unions. I also left with the harsh reality that I need practice.

I wish I could pack up and give as a gift the kind of experience I had at the EI World Women's Conference. I have so many wonderful memories from all the generous people I met in passing, at the hotel, and while touring Morocco, interacting with the local community members, hearing speeches at the conference, and just being immersed in culture! I still cannot believe that I was there, that I experienced this. I will forever have the memories, pictures and, most importantly, connections and friends all around this world, women who are all fighting for the same rights and equality in education.

During the conference, a speaker said, “The whole idea of unions is to bring about change together.” My biggest takeaway is that we cannot make the change we so desperately need on our own. It is going to take networking: locally, nationally, and globally. I am fortunate that I was able to attend this EI World Women's Conference. Now with everyone armed with information and resources, it is time to act, share, and implement.

Williams, a member of the Frederick County Education Association, is a school counselor.


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