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THE National Education Association is keenly aware that its teachers are not a political monolith. The nation’s largest labor union is now making a pragmatic shift from simply tolerating its internal dissenters to engaging them.

The NEA’s most visible strategy is a yearlong fellowship that starts this fall. Teachers will travel to Washington, D.C., for policy meetings and participate in monthly Web-based training in policymaking and advocacy.

The 3.2 million-member union and a national teacher leadership organization, Teach Plus, selected 53 teachers from around the country, including nine from the Puget Sound area. Many of the local teachers are union members and members of Teachers United, a growing group of teachers thoughtfully challenging the union and its local affiliates’ opposition to some education reforms.

Criticism of the union as inflexible on pressing issues including pay and performance has weakened its bargaining position. Reaching out to some of its most vocal critics is part inclusion and part survival.

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“The NEA has acknowledged that it must listen to members who want to participate in the union but were also concerned that they are not acting in the interest of students or elevating the profession of teaching,” says Christopher Eide, executive director of Teachers United.

“This is a step toward keeping the union alive and relevant,” Eide astutely notes.

Local teachers participating include Kristin Bailey-Fogarty and Sarah Margeson from the Seattle Public Schools and teachers from Federal Way, Highline, Tacoma and Bellingham.

The fellowship’s largest cohorts are from Washington, Colorado and Massachusetts, key education-reform battleground states. Bill Raabe, senior director of the NEA’s Center for Great Public Schools, says that is a coincidence. But he notes that bringing in teachers from reform states could benefit an organization looking to hear from different voices.

Raabe says that among the questions the fellows will help the union explore: “What are the things that we need to do to ensure student learning? What are the appropriate assessments to measure student learning?”

The NEA’s strategy has a precedent in Seattle. The election a year ago of Jonathan Knapp as president of the Seattle teachers union signaled a broadening strategy of relationship-building and compromise.

Just as Seattle became a model for strong school district-union relations, the NEA’s inclusiveness should spread to its local affiliates.

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