QUINCY — The smell of lavender wafting through the offices of the Massachusetts Teachers Association is a clear signal that President Merrie Najimy is in. Najimy often turns on a diffuser filled with lavender oil to create a calming atmosphere while working.
It is something she frequently did in her kindergarten classroom at a Concord elementary school, where throughout the day she would periodically play classical music, ocean sounds, or birds chirping. Just beyond her classroom windows, birds would often flock to the feeders she hung outside.
“It really created an atmosphere where my students could let go of stress and really be present to concentrate on their work,” says Najimy. “You have to do the same thing with your office space.”
Najimy took over as the MTA’s president in July, replacing Barbara Madeloni, who had reached her four-year term limit. Among Najimy’s priorities: Overseeing a statewide campaign to push for more funding for public school systems and public higher education institutes, and continuing the MTA’s drive for a moratorium on standardized testing.
The MTA, which sold its longtime headquarters on Beacon Hill four years ago, is now located in an office park, not far from the North Quincy MBTA station. Najimy’s office window offers a panoramic view of the Boston skyline as well as the nearby Sagamore Creek, where she often spots ducks and geese nurturing their young.
She has decorated her office with an assortment of items that reflect who she is as an educator, a labor leader, and a Lebanese-American, injecting personality into an otherwise unremarkable space consisting of white walls, light gray carpeting, and white desks and cabinets. (Her assistant, Aracelis Mercado, also has quite the duck collection.)
Najimy jokes that there are a lot of similarities between being a teacher and labor leader. As a teacher, she said, as soon as her students walked through the door, they would follow her around, tug on her shirt sleeve, and say, “Ms. Najimy, Ms. Najimy, Ms. Najimy.” Then they would tell her what they needed.
“The only difference in the office is that they don’t call me Ms. Najimy — they call me Merrie — and they don’t tug on my shirt sleeve,” she says. “People are catching you in the hall to tell you something that has just come up while on your way to the next meeting. Or they are always poking their head in to say don’t forget about this deadline, or this is a call, how do you want me to respond. So this [work space] helps me stay grounded.”
Here are some of the ways she’s made it her own:
Class pictures. Along the cabinet doors, Najimy affixed nearly all the class photos she has from her 28 years of teaching various grades at different elementary schools in Concord.
“I use to have them hanging up in my classroom on a wall and students were fascinated by looking at students from the past,” she says. “Some would try to find siblings. Others would come back as seniors and I would say, remember the third grade, or first grade, or whatever grade it was I taught them in.”
Turtles. On a shelf, Najimy has a collection of brightly colored turtle figures, including one made by one of her students in a sculpting class. Her students started giving her turtles after a group of them several years ago found a turtle hatchling on the playground. The discovery generated a lot of excitement and, of course, that one question all kids ask when they find something: Can we keep it?
So for the next six weeks, she says, her students read about turtles, talked to experts on turtles, and debated with each other about what they would need to do to care for the turtle and whether they were prepared to take full responsibility, including cleaning the tank. The students ultimately decided to keep it for the winter to help it have a better chance of survival when they returned it to nature in the spring.
“It was such a magical year,” she says. “It really helped kids connect to nature in a way they hadn’t before. So every year after that I would bring turtles into the classroom to winter them over.”
A news clipping featuring her father. It sits on her desk in a frame, a gift from an MTA co-worker on her first day. Her father, Norman Najimy, a former teacher and principal in Pittsfield, where she grew up, used to serve on the MTA board and in 1985 won the MTA’s human and civil rights award. She intends to carry on with that kind of work as president, believing government needs to do more to help students statewide living in poverty or suffering from trauma.
“Our responsibility is to not only care for our students, but to fight for the broader social movement that raises up their living conditions,” she says.
Arabic-inspired decorations. She has set up on an end table a display of children’s blocks depicting a Middle Eastern-like village, along with ceramic tiles with Arabesque art. She also has magnets and framed calligraphy on a wall. Najimy’s grandparents emigrated from Lebanon. She lived there for a year as a child when her father took a sabbatical in Beirut.
Her guiding beacon. On the wall, she wrote in black and red markers: “Democracy is a culture of members in control.” She put it up there after reading an article on how public unions will survive in wake of the Supreme Court ruling this summer on the Janus case, which no longer requires public employees to pay union dues. It got her thinking about the meaning of democracy.
“It has to be members coming together to talk with each other about what’s happening in their classroom or their worksite and what things they are going to do collectively to solve problems they are experiencing, versus the leaders coming in and telling them what to do and how to do it,” she says. “Democracy doesn’t happen unless the leader provides the space for it.”
She says many teachers are frustrated by the lack of democracy in public education, much of it due to the 1993 Education Reform Act, which dictates what curriculums, standards, and assessments teachers must use, and holds schools accountable for results.
“My belief for public education is that it is the place where we educate children to be citizens in a democracy, to help them foster their identity, learn who they are, understand the world, learn how to think critically, and develop passion,” says Najimy, noting that the accountability system has destroyed that mission. “I see that the union is the place to start to reclaim that mission again.”James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.