Lily Eskelsen García Takes the Helm of the NEA

As a child, Lily Eskelsen García was quiet, studious and introverted. The second eldest of six siblings, she often played alone with her dolls while her sisters played together. She kept her head in books, did well in school, but never talking about her future.

The Lily Eskelsen García of today is far from quiet. Speaking to delegates who gathered in Denver this summer for NEA’s Annual Meeting, she served notice on those who try to undermine public education with deceptive and unproven reform practices. “We know what is at stake and it is why we are who we are. It is why we are fearless and why we will not be silent,” García declared.

She heard the call to teach while serving salad in a preschool cafeteria in Colorado Springs, Colo. She was good with kids and the gift was noticed. A year later, she was promoted becoming the aide to a special education teacher who suggested she attend college and become a teacher.

First, she became a teacher’s aide and then put herself through college on student loans, scholarships, and as a starving folk singer. She graduated magna cum laude in elementary education, earned a masters degree in instructional technology, and started her teaching profession at Orchard Elementary School outside Salt Lake City.

“She does what she wants to do and when she wants to do it,” says García’s mother, Chillie Pace, who is originally from Panama and emigrated to the U.S. after marrying García’s father, Bobby Earl when he was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone with the U.S. Army.

García’s “she does what she wants to do” spirit helped her ascend as an educator and as an NEA leader. In 1989 she was recognized as Utah’s Teacher of the Year. And in 1990, she was elected president of the Utah Education Association (UEA) as a write-in candidate.

Along the way, she has understood that her work was about more than her students. It was about being engaged and getting involved in the full spectrum of education. And she worked to instill the same commitment in her students—some whom have reached out to her years later.

Former fifth-grade student Chetta Defa is an example. Decades after leaving Orchard, García received an email from Defa who wrote, “The lessons you taught me during that time have proven to be invaluable. I learned that whatever the problem, you can be a part of the solution. I learned just being aware of things isn’t enough. You have to get involved to make a difference . . . You taught us to all do our part.”

In and out of the classroom, García has been doing her part for more than 30 years.

Teacher of the Year

An arbitrary moment helped to catapult García into the powerhouse that she is today. Her Orchard teaching partner Sue Veatch explains it best: García had left the room for a few minutes. When she returned she had been nominated Teacher of the Year, a prestigious honor that focuses public attention on excellence in teaching.

“She thought we had been joking when she came back in,” Veatch says, describing García as an outstanding teacher. “She was always doing those extra things for her students that went way beyond the regular curriculum . . . wanting the best for her students and more than just the three R’s. She wanted them to go out there and find out how they could impact their society.”

Once, García and her fifth-grade students orchestrated a blood drive for a local boy who had 200 blood transfusions by the time he was four months old. Students even sent a handwritten press release to local newspapers with the plea “You might need blood some day too.”

In her email to García Defa remembers the event fondly: “The blood drive wasn’t the end of the lesson, you didn’t stop there, you introduced us to Mathew, arranged a field trip to meet him and his parents. You didn’t just tell us what we were doing. You showed us why we were doing it. That is teaching.”

Never hesitant to take the next step, García took her classroom experience and style on the road as Utah’s Teacher of the Year to speak on behalf of students and educators.

She understood as far back as the late 80s that education is about more than testing students and pushed for multiple lines of evidence to show student achievement, which, today, positions her to effectively take on the nation’s testing-mania regime that uses commercialized, mass-produced, industrial-strength standardized factory tests to evaluate students and teachers.

Toxic and manic testing is a top priority for her first 100 days as NEA president, and she does not mince her words on the topic. “I’ll be damned if I will sit quietly and play nice and say diplomatic things about something that has corrupted the profession I love,” she recently told the Washington Post.

From the onset of her profession, she has encouraged educators to engage in a whole child movement that is based on the idea that every public school is as good as the “best” public school and that the yardstick that is used to measure the things that matter takes into account the whole student, including mind, body, and character.

Veatch adds that García talked about professional learning communities long before they became popular. García also encouraged educators to take ownership of the teaching profession through collaboration and a genuine interest in public schools.

In a guest opinion for a Salt Lake City newspaper in 1989, García said, “We need to renew in ourselves the worth of our work. Is the high self-esteem we work so hard to instill in our students so wrong to foster in ourselves? And so for ourselves and our students we must make it a priority to impress others with our commitment, our ingenuity and our success.”

When confronted with the challenges of public education her stance was, “I can cry about it or I can get busy,” she once told educators of the Idaho Education Association during the organization’s summer conference in 1989. García encouraged them to “get busy” in the Association. Without a doubt, she has been busy ever since.

Pushing Boundaries

García often tells the story of a reporter who once suggested she was not supposed to be “here,” as in a top position for the largest labor union in the country. She is not from a big state or a state with a strong tradition of union and bargaining rights. She does not come from a blue state, either. But she has always pushed her own personal boundaries.

In 1998, she put her experience of working with small children toward a run for Congress. She was the first Hispanic to run for a federal seat in her state, earning 45 percent of the vote against the incumbent.

Today, she is the first Latina to lead the 3 million-member Association. Braulio Alonso, son of Spanish parents, was president of the NEA from 1967 to 1968.

While she did not grow up speaking Spanish, García was committed to learning the language. “Lily gets mad at me,” says Pace. “She says, ‘You didn’t teach me Spanish!’ I told her she had to take it at school.” García followed her mom’s advice, but also received help from a student she taught at a homeless shelter outside of Salt Lake City.

In an interview with the independent news outlet VOXXI, García describes eight-year-old Julio as “very angry” about living in poverty. He misbehaved in class and was aggressive toward other students. García asked Julio to help her learn Spanish, sparking a change in Julio that grew into a willingness to help his younger classmates.

As her time with Julio was drawing to a close, García had gotten him to start to think about college and possibly become a teacher himself. She remembers he laughed, saying, “I ain’t gonna be no teacher. When I go to college, I’m going to be a luchador. I’m going to be a wrestler with the World Wrestling Federation.” To García the occupation didn’t matter.  What she heard was “when I go to college.”

García did learn Spanish, and Pace says the reasons were so that she could speak to and represent the Latino community—something she has done with vigor and passion.

In 2011, she was appointed by President Obama as commissioner on the White House Commission on Education Excellence for Hispanics, a high-powered panel that works to create better programs for English-language learners, finding ways to train teachers in cultural competency, make college more affordable, and discard the standardized tests students must take to get into college.

More recently García has used her positions within NEA to speak on behalf of DREAMers who are seeking a path to U.S. citizenship, once saying that “There is no debate that these children didn’t do something wrong . . . they deserve to move into society and take their places.”

In a post to her blog, Lily’s Blackboard, she penned, “decades of a hopeless immigration system that defies logic has left entire communities frightened and confused—with mothers separated from children and families often the victims of unscrupulous people who cheat vulnerable people into paying their life’s savings to navigate the quagmire of an undecipherable bureaucracy only to find they have lost every dime and no promised papers to show for it…It’s broken. It’s time to fix it.”

García has taken many of her cues from fearless leaders who dared to dream, and she recently authored Rabble Rousers, which tells the story of ordinary people who used their voices, commitment, and passion to organize communities to fight injustice. Featuring social justice advocates like Mother Jones, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harvey Milk. The book is illustrated by García’s husband, Alberto.

In the book’s introduction, García writes, “These leaders have much in common . . . They all understood that the only way for them to win against such overwhelming power was to organize the little power, the only power that they had. . . . They understood that if they could rouse the common people, the “rabble,” to demand justice with a common voice, they could change the world from what it was into what it should be.”

Dolores Huerta, who with Cesar Chavez founded the labor union that would become the United Farm Workers, says in the forward of Rabble Rousers that the book “depicts how one does not have to have a lot of money or power to create change. It shows the power of the person, no matter what barriers may stand in the way.”

Proceeds for the book will go toward United We Dream, a national youth-led organization that organizes and advocates for the dignity and fair treatment of immigrant youth and families, regardless of immigration status, as well as others who support social justice.

A History-Making Trio

In an NEA first, García leads a historic team of NEA officers who are all women of color. Vice president Becky Pringle is a physical science teacher from Harrisburg, Pa., and secretary-treasurer Princess Moss is an elementary school music teacher from Louisa County, Va. Together, they’re proof that the glass ceiling continues to break.

Prior to her election to the vice president slot, which makes her one of labor’s highest-ranking Black female leaders, Pringle was NEA secretary-treasurer. She oversaw the fiscal integrity of the organization, and advocated on professional issues that impact educators and students. She also focused on issues of equity in education, diversity in the classroom, and human and civil rights. Pringle helped see the union through one of the worst economic periods in recent history ensuring the Association emerged this year on a strong financial footing and on a path to growth.

“From the botched implementation of the Common Core State Standards to toxic tests that are hurting our students, there are many challenges facing students in public education,” says Pringle, who has more than three decades of classroom experience. As vice president, she vows to ensure that NEA lives up to its rich history and legacy of human and civil rights, which she says “is the foundation for realizing a great public school for every student.”

Princess Moss was elected secretary-treasurer. Her responsibilities include overseeing the multimillion-dollar budget of the organization. Additionally, she brings a commitment to bring back music and fine arts education to Americas public schools—an issue she has long championed.

“With an overemphasis on high-stakes standardized tests, we’ve seen the curriculum narrow and subjects like music, fine arts, and P.E. have been stripped from our students’ public education. That’s not right,” says Moss, who spent 21 years in the classroom. “NEA is leading the way to ensure all students receive a well-rounded education, and I’m honored to be at the forefront of that mission.”

Moss’ election to the office of secretary-treasurer rounds out an all-female leadership for the organization, and at the helm is García, who will lead with wit, grit, and candor.

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Eskelsen García: We Are Fearless and We Will Not Be Silent