In a Nutshell: The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is a union that works on behalf of not only public school teachers, but university faculty and staff, and health care workers in the U.S. With many teachers saddled by significant student loan debt, the AFT offers clinics and other resources that help them learn how to manage their loans and seek loan forgiveness. The union also offers a wealth of professional development opportunities for educators. And the AFT website itself is a rich repository of information for all things related to public education.
Teachers in the U.S. are on the frontlines of arming the next generation with the knowledge and skills to succeed in life and in their careers. Most people can agree on this. Most people also agree that these educators are often woefully underpaid for the important, often thankless work they are doing.
Many teachers — like folks in nearly every industry — are saddled with student loan debt which only adds a layer of stress when it comes to monthly bills to keep up with. Additionally, because of underfunded schools, teachers are often left to pay for certain supplies out of their own pockets.
That’s why it’s so important that organizations like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have educators’ backs.
We recently spoke with AFT and the organization told us about the group’s mission and how it advocates on behalf of teachers in a range of issues.
The AFT, which was founded in 1916, is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO and represents more than 1.7 million members in more than 3,000 local affiliates nationwide including Puerto Rico and Guam.
While public school K-12 educators comprise the AFT’s primary membership, the organization also represents public school staff, university faculty, university staff, and health care professionals. It also represents nearly 80,000 early childhood educators.
The organization remains engaged in advancing education policy on the federal level for funding for state and local governments, Title 1 funding for schools, and other support structures at the district level, according to AFT. The AFT also maintains robust professional development training opportunities.
Advocating for Fairness, Economic Opportunity, and High-Quality Public Education
The AFT’s mission includes being a champion of fairness, democracy, economic opportunity, and high-quality education, health care, and public services for students, their families, and communities.
“We are committed to advancing these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining, and political activism, and especially through the work our members do,” according to the union website.
An important component of this mission is standing up for fair pay through collective bargaining, the union told us.
It also seeks to raise awareness about the student loan debt crisis.
“More than 45 million student loan borrowers owe student debt, a result of decades of disinvestment in public higher education that has shifted costs onto students and their families while leaving colleges and universities underfunded,” according to the AFT website.
This means many teachers enter their profession carrying student loan debt. The federal government does offer partial or complete student loan forgiveness for teachers who meet certain requirements.
“Under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, if you teach full-time for five complete and consecutive academic years in a low-income school or educational service agency, and meet other qualifications, you may be eligible for forgiveness of up to $17,500 on your Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans and your Subsidized and Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans,” according to the Federal Student Aid website.
In the meantime, young teachers are juggling these debts while, in some cases, barely scraping by. Nearly 1 in 4 federal borrowers are in default or are struggling to stay current on their loans, according to the AFT. Of course, when borrowers fall behind, the consequences may include negative credit reports, wage garnishment, and diminished options to cure defaulted loans.
“This is why the AFT has launched a student debt clinic program to help our members,” according to the union. “But we know that helping each other manage student debt is not enough; we need to join together and fight to change the terms of the debate about student debt.”
An Emphasis on Professional Development
Many teachers make it a priority to stay on top of the best practices in their field, and learn how to deal with new challenges that arise in the education arena, the union said. Perhaps now more than ever, this is extremely important.
That’s why the American Federation of Teachers maintains a strong focus on professional development for its members.
For example, this past spring when the COVID-19 pandemic began, millions of students and teachers were thrust into a remote learning model with little to no warning. While some schools were somewhat prepared for a scenario like this, the vast majority of schools and teachers had very limited experience with the situation.
The AFT provided a number of professional development opportunities to help educators navigate these new paradigms successfully.
“The AFT has long recognized that the union’s responsibilities go beyond the traditional ‘bread and butter’ issues of salary and benefits,” according to the website. “The AFT Professional Development Program represents one of the union’s major efforts to improve student achievement by making a difference in practitioners’ performance and professional growth.”
The program provides solid, research-based content created and delivered by classroom teachers and school personnel, according to the union. As with most professional development initiatives, it is an ongoing, evolving effort.
The AFT Professional Development Program also incorporates opportunities for the application and implementation of instructional strategies that result in real changes in practice. It also encourages professional growth while building a sense of pride in the quality of a union service, according to the AFT.
“In 1981, the AFT received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a series of courses to encourage all practitioners to improve their practice and their students’ performance by becoming users of research,” according to the website. “Today, the AFT Professional Development Program offers 45-hour graduate-level courses, 3-hour modules, webinars, technology tools, and more to appeal to all educators.”
A Wealth of Resources for Teachers
In addition to advocating on local, regional, and national levels on behalf of teachers and providing many professional development opportunities, the AFT website serves as a vast repository teachers can turn to to learn more about a wide range of issues.
Teachers can access initiatives like Share My Lesson, which is “a free platform that gives access to high-quality, user-generated, standards-aligned preK-12 lesson plans and classroom resources that support teachers, school-related personnel, parents and community organizations in improving student achievement.”
Teachers can help one another find great ideas, save time, and improve their instructional skills through this valuable resource.
Educators can also sign up for the union’s monthly Professional Learning newsletter through the website.
“The newsletter focuses on resources and information that K-12 educators can use in their classrooms everyday,” according to the AFT. “From learning about upcoming union-sponsored professional development and the groundbreaking work of locals and members, to webinars, tipsheets, resources, and member-authored blogs, there is something for everyone.”
The website also provides opportunities for teachers to make their voices heard on the federal level by signing petitions for various causes, including COVID-19 relief.
Teachers can also learn about potential funding opportunities, such as the AFT Innovation Fund.
“The fund’s work aligns with the AFT’s four pillars of powerful and purposeful public education: promoting children’s well-being, supporting powerful learning, building teacher capacity and fostering cultures of collaboration,” according to the union.
If there is a question related to public education, the AFT website is likely to either hold the answer or direct educators to a destination that can offer further information.
Whether teachers are seeking ways to manage their student loan debt, advance their professional development, or simply stay in the loop on the latest education news, the American Federation of Teachers is there to help.