From Cuba to Germany: Meet our wonderful FEA members

Our focus as educators is making sure all students have the opportunity for the great education that they deserve—whether they live in a small town in the Midwest, or on a huge military base in Korea.

Yes, we’ve got members on military bases, too. And they belong to the Federal Education Association, which represents teachers, paraeducators and education support professionals in Department of Defense schools around the world.

These professionals work with “military-connected” students: the children of active-duty military members, DoD civilians and military contractors. They are on bases in Europe, the Pacific, Guam and Cuba, as well as 13 military bases within the continental United States.

FEA has three regions: FEA Stateside, with members in eight states and Guam; FEA Pacific, with members in Japan, Okinawa and South Korea; and FEA Europe, with members in Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Cuba.

I’ll be traveling to England this month and joining FEA leaders and activists for their Association Day, which coincides with FEA’s 60th anniversary.

FEA members hold the same responsibilities that NEA members across the nation have. Except, they must deal with the quirks and obstacles that come with being employees of the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA).  These challenges bring to mind that very old line about Ginger Rogers: She had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.

My dad was in the U.S. Army, so I know a little about this lifestyle. It can be tough on students and educators alike.

dodea-teacher-with-student-and-military-dad

Educators in Defense schools have some advantages; all students have health care and housing, and their parents have steady jobs and security. The schools are generally well-resourced, as all schools should be.

But military-connected students move often, maybe every two or three years, knowing that the bonds they make may not last (although social media has made it easier to stay in touch).  Not only are they far from home, they’re far from extended family, too.  One or both parents could be deployed to a war zone at any time, and those deployments can last several months or even longer.  Sometimes parents return scarred physically or emotionally. Or maybe they come home intact, but find it hard to adjust to new routines and a changed family dynamic that may leave them out.

“The school is a stabilizing, nurturing force in the lives of students, where they can find others who are going through the same thing,” says FEA President Chuck McCarter, who spent 32 years teaching in Germany, first in Schweinfurt and then on the U.S. Army base in Wiesbaden.

These educators are well-versed in being there for students, and they’re a special group themselves. Just like their students, they are separated from extended family members for long periods. They often work in unstable, dangerous parts of the world. (These days, maybe that’s most parts of the world.) In some places, notably Guantanamo, Cuba, they can’t even venture off base.

And then, there is the fallout from being DoDEA employees. The good news is, No Child Left Behind didn’t apply to them or their students. The bad news is, neither does the Every Student Succeeds Act – except that the Defense Department can cherry-pick which parts of the law it likes and which ones it will ignore.

Here’s another drawback: The Defense Department operates the most sophisticated computer systems in the world, but the technology it uses for educators’ pay and benefits is awful.

Paychecks are often inaccurate, and the government sends educators debt collection letters (often inaccurate or even bogus) demanding the return of thousands of dollars without offering proof of what – if anything – is owed. “They violate all sorts of rules and laws,” Chuck says. In addition, DoDEA employees overseas have been subjected to federal government pay freezes and shutdowns.

FEA members also were among the millions impacted in 2015 by the data breaches into Office of Personnel Management (OPM) records. Human resources operations are broken and unresponsive, which means, among other things, there’s no guidance from management for employees nearing retirement – other than being directed to the OPM website. There is little respect for veteran educators, who are thought by DoDEA honchos to be easily replaced. (Sound familiar?)

In addition, a robust transfer program that used to enable educators to transfer from one base to another has been so weakened that “it’s now almost impossible to get a transfer. You stay where you are, or you quit,” says Chuck.

FEA stays busy dealing with these issues and many more, which explains why membership is as high as 100 percent in some places. 

Being an NEA affiliate gives FEA more power when it advocates for members and students.  Chuck recalls 2003, when the Pentagon, post 9/11, proposed the National Security Personnel System. It would have gutted basic due process and collective bargaining rights for civilian Defense employees, under the guise of national security. Those changes were defeated, in part because FEA helped to lead the fight and NEA members across the nation took part in a letter-writing campaign that targeted Congress.

Today, 60 years after its founding in Germany, FEA members and activists are continuing to fight for fairness and for the topnotch education their students deserve, wherever in the world they live.  “I think our members are amazing,” Chuck says. “I’ve seen them work magic in their classrooms. Not only do they care about students, they are proud to have a very special mission. ‘We teach the children’ is more than our slogan. It’s our truth.”

Happy anniversary, FEA!

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3 Responses to “From Cuba to Germany: Meet our wonderful FEA members”

  1. Susan Kelly

    I hear that Lily is going to attend Association Day in England this weekend. This is great for the few FEA members that will be able to attend. Any chance of coming to Germany where most of the European member reside? You can always contact me; I’m a Division Representative for FEA and wish I were able to have NEA meet our members in the Europe East District. Oh well…..

    Reply
  2. Kathleen Pearce

    Dear Lily,
    You are the reason my daughter Amy became an educator. She was in your class at Orchard Elementary School and loved you. She still remembers learning through music in your class and sings the songs you taught to her own daughters.
    She received her under graduate and graduate degrees from the University of Utah, after teaching in Utah and California she now teaches in Okinawa, where her husband , who is a Marine is stationed.
    Thank you for always investing in your students with love and enthusiasm, I am certain that you have touched many more lives during your teaching years.
    Sincerely,
    Kathy Pearce

    Reply
  3. John Crowe

    As a member of FEA and an educator in the UK, I was thrilled to have you visit our school last week. You are a shining example of the determination, resilience and humanity that is embodied in our military students here overseas as well as in the families we serve. We are privileged to serve our military communities and we are honored to have you inspiring us as educators and advocates for our profession.

    Reply

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