Julia Graziani sits inside a hotel ballroom with the next generation of about 350 people just like her: new teachers.

Graziani is 25 and always knew she wanted to be a teacher. As one of 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, she says was always surrounded by kiddos. 

Her little sister was born when she was 16. Graziani remembers reading to her, watching her grow, experience new things, ask questions and more than anything — learn. 

“Directly working with children has always been a passion and I think it was kind of a natural progression for me to be like, ‘Well, wait a minute, what if I can make a significant change on a higher level?’” Graziani said.

After graduating this past May, she is teaching second graders in the Tucson Unified School District. Her dark, almost buzz cut hair is striped with patches of green, pink and yellow. Piercings adorn her ears. But what stood out most was the excited smile on her face as she spoke of her first class, an expression sure to warm up even the shyest of second graders.

The first day of classes in TUSD was Aug. 3 and for many teachers, it will be the first time leading their own classroom.

TUSD welcomes these new teachers at its three-day induction where they are invited to get to know the district, hear from TUSD leadership, learn from multicultural presentations, attend breakout sessions and learn more about the union.

Outside the ballroom, where Julie is sitting with new teachers, the foyer is buzzing. It’s the last Thursday in July, and the final day of the district’s induction training. Members of the teacher’s union, the Tucson Education Association, gather in red shirts. They are waiting for the doors of the ballroom to open. It feels like the kind of energy in the school cafeteria on a Friday afternoon. 

Some veteran teachers are lined up against the walls outside the ballroom, waiting and chatting patiently. Others are more riled up, joking and rallying their colleagues. Everyone has beaded necklaces, stickers to hand out or posters. 

When the doors from the ballroom open, the group of new teachers are welcomed by an eruption of cheers and applause. They walk through a tunnel of educators wearing #REDforED shirts, carrying #ROJOPorLaEd signs and shouting “Thank you.”

Former Tucson Education Association President Margaret Chaney, left, and Corina Ontiveros hold signs encouraging TUSD teachers to join the union at event on Thursday, July 27, 2023 in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

A voice for teachers, students and parents

While the cheering and signature red colors are a lift, they do not fix the deep challenges educators in Arizona have faced since the historic teachers strike in 2018. Many teachers have witnessed thousands of fellow educators – tired of low wages, substandard training and inadequate investments in education funding – leave behind the work and children they love. Some have moved to other states with better wages and benefits. Others have left the profession altogether.

The challenges are so profound that Gov. Katie Hobbs has created a task force to stem the wave of educators fleeing the career many see as a calling.

Union leaders say they understand the problems from a broad systemic perspective, and from a personal one as they watch a new wave of teachers come and go.

In addition to hundreds of teachers at the conference in July, there were civic leaders from the Tucson Education Association and the Arizona Education Association.

Key speakers included Margaret Chaney, former president of the Tucson union; Jim Burns, the current president; and Marisol Garcia, the president of the Arizona union.

Garcia is the first woman of color and Chicana to be president of the Arizona Education Association. She taught eighth grade for 15 years in west Phoenix’s Isaac School District, specializing in social studies. 

Corina Ontiveros, left, speaks with Arizona Education Association President Marisol Garcia at the new teacher induction on Thursday, July 27 in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

“I have a son who’s now going to be a senior in high school this year and he’s been in a completely underfunded school system his entire 10 years,” Garcia said. “There comes a point, as a parent, where you start to think, ‘Does he have every opportunity that he could have been afforded by our school system so that he could go to the college he wants or get the job?’”

Garcia said in addition to fighting for equity in schools, unions can help teachers feel respected and safe at work.

Chaney, the former Tucson president, grew up in a union family. She said the union helped her during a lawsuit when she was also a new teacher in TUSD. 

“I was so grateful because they held my hand the entire time,” Chaney said with a laugh. She has now been a teacher for more than 26 years. 

Chaney remembers what her father used to say and how it applies now just like back then.

“My father used to say, ‘If your employer was benevolent, unions would not exist,’ and that’s so true,” Chaney said.

Jim Byrne is the current president of the Tucson Education Association, elected in January. Byrne teaches history at Cholla High School. 

He says that between the state budget and recruiting issues, “It makes it challenging to find enough qualified staff members just to have enough adults in there to make the campuses feel nominally safe.” 

“Then the challenge inside the classroom is for our classroom staff to feel like they’re supported, they got the time and they’ve got the energy to be able to give our students the best public education they can,” he said.

A new generation

Julia, the new teacher with the beaming smile and buzz cut, sits at one of the round ballroom tables surrounded and supported by teachers of all ages and backgrounds. They chose education to change the lives of children in Arizona.

Many teachers joining the profession — knowing the current the challenges — have a vision for strengthening the education system, and perhaps for holding the union accountable as well.

“I think there is a new generation of specifically educators who want to have a strong union and (the Tucson Education Association) is a perfect example,” said Garcia, the Arizona union president. “I think they’re gonna double the amount of membership in this year because there’s a feeling of, ‘we need to fix things.’” 

Graziani signed up with the Tucson Education Association.

“Because one teacher, maybe, we can make a change within that classroom. One school, can maybe make a change within that school. But hundreds of teachers, lots of schools, big districts: that’s where change can really be pushed through,” she said.

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