By Fred Ingram
The beginning of the school year is a fresh start and a time of transition. For this teacher, it’s bittersweet.
I was recently elected secretary-treasurer of my national union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Beginning in September, and will serve as one of its top two officers, representing 1.8 million educators and public employees. I’ll be relocating with my family to Washington, D.C.
I’ve had an amazing and blessed journey here in the Sunshine State, although not always an easy one. I started out as a poor kid with a stutter living in Miami’s housing projects. But my parents taught me the sky was the limit, so long as I worked hard, respected those around me, and valued education.
They were right. I could barely speak when I started school. My life turned around when a public school music teacher taught me to sing. I learned to control my stutter, to speak in public, and I gained the desire to go on to become a teacher and a mentor to others.
After graduating from Bethune Cookman University, I spent 10 years as a band teacher at two inner-city Miami high schools, Booker T. Washington and Carol City, where almost all students qualified for free and reduced lunch. We had broken down instruments and second-rate facilities. Nobody expected much from our schools or our students.
Except those students had other ideas and most had parents like mine, who taught them the only limits you can’t exceed at are those that you place on yourself. My students loved music, worked hard and overcame the odds to win top ratings and state championships. Today, some of them are doctors and lawyers – and please know that I couldn’t be prouder of former students who are now teachers.
Since I left the classroom to become a full-time union officer, I’ve marched, lobbied, negotiated, and advocated alongside Florida educators for better funding for students and schools and professional rights for educators. I did this first at the United Teachers of Dade (UTD) and later at the statewide Florida Education Association (FEA).
My passion has always been to open doors for every student, regardless of race, class, income or geography. That passion will be the center of my work at AFT –building on the grassroots activism and coalition-building that I learned in Florida.
As I write this, the FEA has just won an injunction preventing an out-of-control governor from re-opening our schools without a plan to prevent the spread of Covid-19. FEA won because we stood up for our students and public safety and we had strong support from parents and the community.
We don’t know what the courts will ultimately decide, but we do know that, regardless of the outcome, FEA will continue to fight for solutions to ensure that Florida students have safe and high-quality learning environments no matter if it is in brick and mortar or remote classrooms. It’s a bittersweet time for me to leave this state that I love, but I am taking our fight that this band teacher has been living my entire life to take to the national stage.
Fed Ingram is a former Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year, former president of United Teachers of Dade, and outgoing president of the Florida Education Association.