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Full Text Transcript of NEA President Dennis Van Roekel's Speech

Delivered July 2, 2012 at the NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly

Welcome to the 150th annual meeting and the 91st Representative Assembly. I so appreciate that warm welcome, and I thank Lily for the very kind introduction. I want to first acknowledge both Lily and Becky. They are simply amazing. Not only for their incredible talents and skills, but for their courage, their leadership, and their complete understanding of what it means to collaborate, to work as partners, to be a real team. The two of them inspire me every day. I can't imagine doing the job without them. I also want to acknowledge the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors. What a fantastic job they do. Their commitment to students and public education is always evident. And I see their dedication to this organization and our members in absolutely everything they do. And they make me proud, proud and honored to be their colleague. And to all of you, each and every one of you in this room, I thank you for your passion, your commitment. This has been a challenging year for our country. And I know it has challenged you as well as our members back home. Not just in some states, but in every state. I know how hard you worked to stand up for members and to serve our students, from pre‑K to graduate, and you do it every day. It's who you are. It's what we do.

In the rush of daily events, we don't always take time to reflect upon the profound trust placed in us. Or the enormous difference we make in the lives of so many students.

It's funny how just a normal everyday thing that seems so routine can also take on powerful significance. I remember one special day many years ago, my classes at school started at 7:30, so I often didn't have an opportunity to drive my sons to school. But one day I did. They were in first and third grade. As I pulled up to the school, I gave them each a kiss and a hug before they hopped out of the car. As I watched those two little guys walk up the sidewalk onto the playground, joining the many students who were there, I was suddenly struck by such a powerful feeling. And I remember this day exactly what went through my mind. I was hoping beyond hope that every adult at that school understood that I had just given them the most precious gift in my life — my children. I wanted them to realize how important it was to me for those two little guys to have a great day, to learn, to smile, to laugh, and to end the day feeling good and eager and ready to return to school the next day.

My guess is that every parent feels that way, whether they are sending their child off to first grade or leaving them in the dorm room for their first day of college. It's routine. It happens every day, yet it's extraordinary.

Parents are bringing their students to us, literally putting their future in our hands, entrusting us with the most important part of their world. We do not take that trust lightly. We never forget the importance of our work as we help shape and influence the lives of almost every student in America. Because we, the more than three million members of the National Education Association, we educate America!

Think about it. We educate America. From preschool to community college to graduate schools. Students from every ZIP code, students of every age.

And at this time, in a world of competition and a world of change, our work is so important to our country. Our work not only opens the door of opportunity for students, it drives the economy, and it fuels the engine of democracy.

We're absolutely everywhere. We're in classrooms, the library, the computer lab, the college campuses. We're there every day driving the buses, preparing the food, keeping the school safe, keeping the school clean. We coach the teams, advise the clubs, counsel the students who just need to talk.

We educate to realize America's dreams. It's our work. It's our profession. But that sure doesn't stop anyone from having an opinion on how we ought to do our work, does it?

We all know there are plenty of people who are eager to offer advice — or worse, try to impose their ideas on our profession. Bloggers, columnists, elected officials, and self‑proclaimed reformers, they are constantly weighing in about public education. I mean, they have an opinion on everything — the who, the what, the when, the where, and the how — all of that about public education. Always opinions.

The "who" they love to talk about and blame are teachers. As if this disjointed and underfunded system is somehow the fault of those who teach and the people who work in those schools. But the real problems are the profiteers and mega-rich Wall Street folks who created an economic crisis that has our country and the world reeling.

And the solution isn't to attack educators, it's to give respect. That's what will attract talented young people to become teachers and education support professionals and college professors.

The other part of the "who" in education is the students, and the demographics are rapidly changing. The majority of America's students will soon be ethnic minorities, and one in five children in our country today lives in poverty.

Instead of focusing on solutions to help these students, too many keep looking for ways to maximize profits.

And, by the way, educators can't do this all by ourselves. We know we have to partner with parents, with business leaders, with people in the community, to create great public schools. We all have a role to play.

As far as the discussion on "what" we teach, that has changed dramatically. No Child Left Behind with its emphasis on standardized tests has distorted public education by narrowing the curriculum and eliminating programs. We spend endless time getting students ready for and taking standardized tests, all at the expense of literature that inspires students or history that helps them understand, or the arts that allow them to express themselves.

The "where" discussion in education is all over the map, with advocates for homeschooling, charter schools, private schools, and neighborhood schools. And with today's technology, "Where" doesn't even have to be a specific place; it's anywhere, with online courses, blended learning, flipped classrooms, massive online open courses.

And the "when" discussion? Well, they say we no longer live in an agrarian society, so why shouldn't students attend school all year? There are debates about a longer day or a longer year or when we should meet or when we shouldn't. Everyone talks about the "when" with one glaring exception — early childhood education. There's only one politician who has ever mentioned it in the last four years, and that's President Barack Obama.

The importance of early childhood education is obvious. The research is clear. I know of no family of means that denies that experience for their own children. Yet there is almost a total silence about providing that same opportunity for "other people's children" — for all of America's children.

And when you turn to the discussion of how education ought to be delivered, oh, the floodgates open up. Everyone seems to know how we ought to do our job. Too often it's the test-the-students-and-then-test-them-some-more crowd. They want to use those test scores to evaluate teachers, to label students, and embarrass schools. They seem to have no need for evidence or research. It's kind of like if it makes a good sound bite, then go for it.

Amid all this talk about the who, the what, the when, the where, and the how of public education, there's something missing.

Almost no one talks about the why of public education. See, that should be the starting point, because we have to answer that question before we ask the others. If you ask our members, regardless of membership category, if you ask them why they choose to work in education, why they teach, why they drive buses, counsel students, prepare meals, provide health care as a nurse, why they clean rest rooms and classrooms, the answer always comes down to one answer. It's about students. It's always about them.

Video: Representative Assembly Keynote Address by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel

So what is the purpose of public education in the 21st century? Why does it need to exist more now than ever before in America? What do we want to achieve for students, for our society, for America? See, to me, the purpose of public education begins with access and equity. That's why it's public. That's why we need it for all.

Public education makes America strong. Studying history and civics helps students become good citizens. Part of a democratic republic. Public education is a vehicle to teach American values and ideals, values like a just society, equal opportunity, and democracy. And in a nation where equal opportunity is one of our most deeply held values, education is a key that opens the door to economic opportunity, for people from all backgrounds.

See, that's why top leaders from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Obama have understood the importance of education in our society.

Another obvious answer to the "why" question is student learning: the academic side of education. Not a curriculum narrowed to fit the confines of a high‑stakes standardized test, but a rich curriculum that includes art, music, dance, sports, drama, science, a whole world of possibilities to explore, a whole universe to inspire our students. Education should prepare young people for the future and help them discover their passion.

But there's more to the "why." There's more to education than academics.

So when we talk about the "why" of public education, the purpose of public education, we have to address the needs of the whole child. That means including issues like health care, good nutrition, safe schools and family environment. All of these things impact learning and student development. We aren't only their teacher or their bus driver. We are an adult in that child's life. We never know when we might have an impact on their development or their growth as a person. So we have to see them as more than a student at a desk.

One year I asked all of my high school math students to each write me a letter about their goals for my class, their aspirations. And I said, “Please tell me one thing I don't know about you but you think I should.”

That night as I was reading 160 letters written just for me, one of them jumped out and grabbed me. I remember where she sat. She was not doing particularly well. We were about six weeks into the school year, but in her letter she said, “One thing Mr. Van Roekel doesn't know about me is that my dad died two weeks before school started. I know school is important, it's just hard to feel that right now.”

So you realize at times like that, academics, sure, they're important, but that's not all a student needs. You see, sometimes kids just need somebody to listen, to understand, to encourage, and you know those things just can't be measured on a test where you bubble in an answer.

All of these issues I mentioned, we can't possibly address all of them ourselves, but what we can do is create partnerships and work with other people to meet all those needs.

And we can't set education policy by ourselves, but we do have the power to influence. One way is through the political process. We're going to talk about that a lot over the next few days because the election this year is critical for public education and it's also the turning point for the entire middle class in America. The first item on that list: We must do everything we can to reelect President Barack Obama!

President Obama has earned our support in this first term. He secured federal funds to keep more than 400,000 educators working with students. He expanded access to health care to some 30 million Americans through the Affordable Care Act, which thankfully was upheld last week by the Supreme Court.

He issued an executive order to open the door of opportunity to hundreds of thousands of students who are eligible for the DREAM Act. And just last week — and just last week, he led the way to ensure that student loans remain affordable.

Now, we know the other side will outspend us in this election, but we can't allow them to outwork us.

We will reelect President Obama. Are you ready! Oh, yes, we must engage in the political system.

But that isn't enough. To help students succeed in these challenging times, we must also harness the strength of our association to take charge of the teaching profession.

We need to support our members to define what good teaching looks like so others can't reduce good teaching to standardized tests. We cannot allow that to happen. And we must have a real say, a real say in how educators are prepared, trained, and evaluated. We are all leaders in our union and in our profession. We know how to bargain for a contract, how to mobilize our members for an election, how to advocate for legislation. And obviously, we need to keep doing all of those things, with the attacks that are coming, we must do it and do it well. But my question to you is this:

Are we willing to assert our leadership and take responsibility for our professions? The demands of our work are changing as our students change, and as the world around us is changing, too, ever so fast.

Now, I say it's time for us to lead the next generation of professionals in educating the next generation of students. I am so tired of others defining the solutions without even ever asking those who do the work every day of their professional life. I want to take advantage of this opportunity for us to lead, and I'm not willing to ask those folks on the outside for permission. I'm not willing to ask them, “Do I get to do this?” Because if we are not ready to lead, if we are not ready to lead, I know there are many others ready, willing, and waiting to do it for us. Or maybe I should say, do it to us.

There are plenty of people outside our profession who have their own ideas about what we should be doing, how we should be evaluated and how we should improve public education. There are ideas like privatization, unregulated charters and vouchers.

Frankly, our current system allowed the market for those ideas to exist. We are part of that system, a system that has not successfully addressed the dropout crisis, and it allows kids who are poor to be in schools that do not meet their needs, and to be placed in the classrooms year after year with the least qualified and the least experienced teachers.

It's not enough to say that most teachers are good. If there is even one classroom with a teacher who isn't prepared or qualified, we can't accept that. Because this country is not about equal opportunity for most. It's about equal opportunity for all. And let me be clear: This country is not about all the educational opportunity you can afford, it's about all the educational opportunity our nation can provide, not for some but for all students in America!

We proudly stand for equity, and when we say "equity," we're not talking about the Bain Capital Private Equity Corporation. When we talk about equity, we are saying that every child, every classroom deserves a great teacher and great support professional. If the solutions that others are attempting to impose on us don't work for the students we serve, then we must take the responsibility to define solutions that do work for every student.

So let's use our collective power to raise the level of preparation for those coming into our profession and improve the practice of those who are already there. We're professionals, and professionals are always looking for ways to raise their game. And we know that ensuring student success in this fast‑changing economy requires more from all of us. And I know that teachers are willing to take responsibility for student success, and they want and deserve a voice in how they're trained, supported, and evaluated.

So let's demand that every educator, including education support professionals, receives the professional development and support they need to help students succeed.

Instead of waiting for someone to tell us what to teach or how to do our jobs, let us be the change we are waiting for. Let's lead a movement for new academic standards. Let us define the multiple measures of professional practice and evidence of student learning. We need them both. And let's learn to use data and technology in new ways.

We'll hear this week about a great program in which education support professionals are visiting students' homes, building relationships with parents, and they are using data to flag problems, design interventions, and track progress. We'll also hear about a project that is using technology to teach sciences with embedded assessments so teachers know in real time when students don't understand a point. These are just a couple of the many examples of what is happening across the country.

Our local affiliates are leading the way to improve the lives of students. And that so excites and energizes me. It gives me hope, because I know the power of this union. The world has changed and society is asking more of us. Our country needs more from us. But we don't have to do it alone. Why should we do it? Because we have each other, so we can do things together that none of us could possibly do by ourselves. And not only that, but we can do things no one else can do. Yes, we need help from parents, communities, business leaders, and we will work hard to create real partnerships with them, especially in the ethnic minority communities. But we are the NEA. We educate America. And there are some things that we and only we can do. And we must do them.

A few weeks from now, the class of 2025 will enter kindergarten. Imagine ‑‑ almost four million five‑year‑olds. Can you see their faces? Can you see that incredible diversity, the eagerness to begin, the joy of getting to attend school? I know one of them quite well. His name is Mason Van Roekel. My youngest grandson. Just as I did so many years ago, his parents, my son and daughter‑in‑law, are entrusting him to us. They're putting his future in our hands just as the parents of four million other children will be doing. It's a long way from that first day in kindergarten until they graduate from high school. And along the way, there are so many things we must do. We must make the interventions to keep them on a path to success. We need to find a way to help them when what we're doing now isn't working, because the world is going to keep changing and the challenges are immense. The demographics of this group, they reflect the increasing diversity of our nation. Technology — they've grown up using devices that I couldn't even imagine when I began teaching. I bet there are some of you in this room who are like me. When I started teaching, we still had slide rules. Remember those?

And the careers? We can't even fathom what kind of work many of them will do.

As these students navigate through this changing world, I hope we'll constantly monitor their needs to help them stay on course. I hope we'll adapt and try whatever tactics are necessary to reach every one of them. I hope we'll be willing to push ourselves to get better every day. I hope we'll do these things because the dreams of these children are riding on us. Yes, it's a big responsibility, but it's not a burden. It's a joyous responsibility that we readily embrace. We are three million strong, and we have the greatest power in the world, the power to change lives.

So let's use that power. Let's use our power as individuals, and let's use our power through our collective strength, the power of three million people working together with passion and commitment to improve the lives of all our students. Let's use our power to change one classroom at a time. Let's use our power to make public education stronger. And let's use our power to make our nation a better place, moving ever closer to our great and noble ideal of equal opportunity, not just for a fortunate few, but for every single child.

NEA, we educate America. Thank you for all you do for the students of our country. Thank you very much.