We lost a dear member of the NEA family recently. Helen Pate Bain, NEA president from 1970 to 1971, extraordinary activist and trailblazer, died last month at 91.
Helen, who began her teaching career in 1945, was a friend of mine and a wonderful mentor. Her belief that every child should have the opportunity to learn set her on a path of activism that did not ebb until Alzheimer’s disease began to take her away from us late in life.
She was NEA president in an era when national officers served for only one-year terms. But Helen continued to be a voice for children throughout her life.
Years after she was no longer NEA president, we worked together on the issue of class size. I was the Utah Education President at the time and my state had the shameful status of having the highest class sizes in the nation. Helen and I would put our heads together regularly to strategize about how to get such a fundamental issue the national attention it deserved.
I told Helen about the year I had 23 fifth graders, and the contrast with the year I had 39. I was so frustrated that year with managing “crowd control” that I questioned whether I had made the right decision in becoming a teacher. She understood that. She understood that the number of students in the classroom was just about the most important factor in the quality of a student’s experience. It affects the teacher’s ability to connect one-on-one with a student, individualize a lesson, and take each student’s needs into account. And it makes the difference between a student working harder, or flying under the radar.
Helen was named to many boards and commissions on class size and even testified before a Congressional subcommittee. “It is only when class sizes are reduced that teachers can truly perform at their maximum level of quality,” she told subcommittee members.
You’d see Helen at state and regional meetings and the Representative Assembly, the little old lady with snow-white hair in comfy shoes, handing out petitions and literature. She’d remind us of the importance of keeping legislators focused on the number of students in the class, not on ratios that included teachers, educational support professionals, and administrators. She wasn’t about to let someone play games with class size.
Helen was NEA president at a tumultuous time for our nation. She believed deeply that the NEA had the obligation not to duck controversial issues such as integration, but to embrace them. She fought for racial justice and understood that schools and even our own associations had been part of an institutional structure of racism.
In the late ‘60s, she was a co-founder of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, the product of the merger of the White and Black teacher organizations in that area, and she served on an NEA committee on such mergers to integrate the local and state affiliates of the NEA.
Because she believed large locals faced unique issues, Helen co-founded in 1961 the National Council of Urban Education Associations, a council that is still going strong today.
I came across a July 1970 newspaper article on Helen, published just after she’d been elected NEA president. I chuckled at the reporter’s antiquated description of her as a “pert blonde,” but the article sure captured her spirit. “We will continue to speak out on any issue that concerns the life of this country,” she said. “If as educators we do not accept the responsibility to participate, we are not carrying out our duty.” She said every teacher should not only belong to a political party, but “become a precinct worker…who can deliver a block of votes.”
Helen had a lot of lofty titles. But those offices were simply steppingstones that allowed her to make a difference. She was full of passion and determination – and motivated by a deep and abiding love of students and families who were often marginalized because of race or poverty.
Her advocacy, research and writing continued well into her 80s. In 2008, she co-authored a piece in the Phi Delta Kappan about the achievement gap, linking it with affordable housing in stable neighborhoods, a living wage with health care benefits, and early childhood education. A year later – at age 85 – she spent four days touring schools in Mobile, Ala., urging a study on class size.
That’s why last week at the 2015 NCUEA Fall Conference, we did not observe a moment of silence for Helen Pate Bain; instead, we made some noise for her. As one of our most energetic and forceful rabble rousers, I think the powerful little old lady in comfy shoes would have appreciated the pure shout we gave in her honor.