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.
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!