When Becky Pringle was a young mother and teacher in the Susquehanna Township School District near Harrisburg, she was upset to learn there would be 33 students in her son’s kindergarten class, too many for adequate learning to take place.
So she went to the school board meeting and, with a local television station filming, she took on the superintendent. The local teachers’ union president noticed.
“You need to be involved in a union,” the president told her. “You have a big mouth, and we need that.”
Now, Pringle, a Philadelphia native and a former Philadelphia public-school teacher, albeit briefly, will lead the country’s largest union, the three-million-member National Education Association. With a career-long passion for social justice and equity, she assumes the role at a time when the country has been shaken by the pandemic that has disproportionately affected communities of color and is facing a racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“The fact that we are wrestling with them at the same time actually gives us the opportunity to do what I am focused on doing,” said Pringle, who becomes the highest-ranking African American female labor leader in America. “Lead a movement to reclaim public education as a common good, as the foundation of our democracy, and then to transform it into a racial and socially just and equitable system.”
Pringle comes from a union family. Her father was a longtime teacher at Olney High School in Philadelphia and her mother a head cook at a Head Start program. She attended Kinsey Elementary and Wagner Middle School, and graduated from Girls’ High, one of Philadelphia’s prestigious magnet schools.
She’s a big Philly sports fan. She attended the 2018 Super Bowl when the Eagles won. And at the start of a half-hour interview, she noted that she was wearing her 2008 Phillies World Series shirt.
After getting her bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, she taught for three months at Kinsey before her husband’s job took her and her family to the Harrisburg area. She was a member of the American Federation of Teachers, the union that represents Philadelphia’s public school teachers, and then joined the NEA when she started work in the Susquehanna district as a middle school science teacher.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, knows Pringle well and said he was delighted to see her take the top post at NEA.
“Becky is a true leader and coalition builder; she’s smart, forward thinking, and makes everyone around her feel valued and respected,” Jordan said. “Of course, I am thrilled to have a Philadelphia public school graduate take on such an important leadership role, and I am particularly thrilled that it’s Becky Pringle.”
During her 31-year classroom teaching career, Pringle led efforts to have teachers and staff undergo implicit bias training and convert the middle school to a team-teaching approach. She joined NEA leadership in 2014, first as secretary treasurer and then as vice president.
She recalled attending her first NEA convention in 1988, when Mary Futrell was president.
“I can remember sitting with 10,000 delegates, seeing a black woman up there, completely in control of this convention,” she said. “It was one of the proudest moments of my life.”
When she decided to seek the NEA presidency last year, she took Futrell out to lunch and sought her advice.
As president, Pringle said, she will continue to fight for fair funding for the nation’s public schools, which have suffered from long-standing inequities. Students who are left to learn in substandard buildings with too few resources know the unfairness when they see other schools where conditions are much better, she said.
“We have never had an equitable funding system in our schools in America, and that is something this country needs to commit to, to ensure that those students have what they need,” she said.
She also said schools, for their part, must “center everything in equity.” They must have conversations about race, use culturally competent teaching practices, and create environments that are safe and nurturing to all cultures, she said.
As for reopening schools this fall, she said the federal government has not provided the money and support needed to create safe learning environments for in-person teaching during the pandemic. Schools need to be able to do adequate testing, provide protective equipment, conduct health-care checks, and isolate students or teachers who become ill.
Without that, “they are not safe and they should not open,” she said.