When Sara Schmitt tells people she's president of the Beaverton Education Association, she's often met with a blank stare and a response along the lines of "What's that?"
"A lot of people don't know what we do," Schmitt said. "And when we say, 'Oh, we're the teachers' union,' a lot of people have their preconceived notions about what a union is. They don't always connect the fact that we are just teachers, and our main goal is to help kids learn and make sure teachers are supported."
That's one of the reasons why the Beaverton Education Association, the local arm of the National Education Association and the Oregon Education Association, has a new goal for the upcoming school year: make itself more visible to the greater Beaverton community.
"This is a new effort for us," Schmitt said about the visibility goal. "Beaverton Education Association is a group of teachers that want the best for kids in Beaverton"
The association's efforts kicked off with a free book giveaway at the Beaverton Farmers Market last Saturday. Schmitt and her team began collecting books from retiring and transferring teachers last spring. They then put labels on the books that said "Donated by a Beaverton teacher."
Schmitt said that the association ended up giving away about 2,000 books on Saturday. That meant that the team of teachers giving away the books had a chance to interact with students, parents and grandparents, and to emphasize the importance of summer reading.
"It was a nice way for us to keep books in rotation, and to allow for folks who weren't using them anymore to give them away," she added.
In addition to planning events like the book giveaway, Schmitt also plans to forge new partnerships between the association and other Beaverton organizations, as part of her goal to increase community awareness.
She named Shelter Us Beaverton, a grassroots organization that aims to increase awareness of local homeless issues and provides resources for homeless families living within the Beaverton School District, as one group she'd like to work with more closely.
"All those things help our kids succeed in school," she said about Shelter Us Beaverton's services. "It makes sense to work together as much as possible."
The Beaverton Education Association already works with the Beaverton Education Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money to support the Beaverton School District. Schmitt said she plans to continue to work closely with the foundation, where she sits on the board of directors.
"They do amazing work," Schmitt said. "That's a partnership we've had for a long time."
In addition to raising the association's visibility, Schmitt has other focuses for the upcoming school year. The Beaverton School District will implement a new early-release program, in which students are let out of school 90 minutes early each Wednesday so that teachers have time to collaborate and take part in professional development programs.
Schmitt said she's a big fan of the new early release program.
"That's a big movement towards improving teachers' practice by giving them more time to work together, and do professional development together," she said.
That professional development may be especially important for teachers who are new to the job. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of new teachers joining the profession has been steadily declining since 2010.
Schmitt said that the best way to counteract that decline is to make sure teachers who have joined the profession in the last one to five years have the support they need to excel in their field.
"We don't have as many people going into teacher prep programs, so we want to make sure we're giving our new educators as much support as we can and making sure they stay in the profession," she said. "The Beaverton School District does a great job at professional development, but sometimes it can still be a little overwhelming."
That support comes in the form of mentor programs, Schmitt said, and in educating new teachers about the teachers' union.
The association also will be focused on advocating for smaller class sizes, safer working conditions and well-rounded education — evergreen topics that are also priorities for the National Education Association and the Oregon Education Association.