Watertown’s Merrie Najimy will be taking a leave of absence from teaching kindergarten in Concord for two years so that she can serve as president of the largest teachers union in the state.
On May 5, Najimy was elected president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association with her running made, vice president Max Page, a professor of architecture at UMass Amherst. Before being elected, Najimy served on the board of directors of the MTA for six years and was president of the Concord Teachers Association for 11 years.
In the classroom, Najimy has taught grades kindergarten to third grade for 28 years, the last 23 in Concord.
Both teaching and unionism run in her family, said Najimy, who has lived in Watertown for 25 years, but who grew up in Pittsfield.
“When I was a child my Dad was on the board of directors of the MTA,” Najimy said.
Najimy will become union president at a time when teachers unions are making waves nationally, including teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma. She said she believes that the MTA is pushing for the same thing as other unions.
“When I think about unionism, unions work and fight for social justice and economic justice,” Najimy said.
While she works in a district blessed with resources and programs, Najimy said she will fight to get the same opportunities for all students in Massachusetts. She said Concord provides her with an example of what all schools need and deserve.
“Schools in black and brown communities don’t have the same funding and resources that, for example, Concord has,” Najimy said. “They need school psychologists, school nurses, more art and more music.”
As MTA president, her efforts to support social and economic justice will go beyond the schools. The union will support three state ballot questions this fall which would provide paid family and medical leave, raise the minimum wage, and to increase funding for education and transportation by raising the income tax on people making over $1 million a year.
Najimy grew up in a Lebenese community in Pittsfield, so she said Watertown was a natural fit for her. However, she ended up living in town by chance. After teaching for a year in Pittsfield, Najimy was laid off due to budget problems. She was looking for a place to live with a college friend in the Boston area.
“She was looking for an apartment and found one in Watertown,” Najimy said. “I walked up the street and heard people speaking Arabic and Armenian in the markets and I thought, I found home.”
Growing up as an Arab-American also taught Najimy about stereotypes and made her believe in the importance of multiculturalism. Growing up, the images of Arabs she saw in the media and Hollywood were not the same as those she was familiar with. She said they Arabs were portrayed through the lens of Islamophobia.
As a kindergaten teacher, Najimy does include multicultural lessons, but they are not so much focused on the issues of Arab-Americans, or other groups, but more generally.
“We look at who we are: Human values, family values, how we are different and how we are the same,” Najimy said. “From there we look at what is a stereotype, and how to stand up against stereotypes. We talk about what is fair and to stand up for that.”
One of her focuses as MTA president will be to push for Massachusetts to get away from the Common Core Standards and give teachers more freedom.
“The decline of multicultural education was parallel to the rise of Common Core. It narrowed the purpose of education in favor of college and career readiness,” Najimy said. “I’m not saying that isn’t important but it is only one piece. We should be asking who should our children be and what kind of people we want them to be.”
Najimy added that she believes teachers need to have autonomy in their classrooms.