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Q&A Session with Dennis Van Roekel, Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, and Becky Pringle

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle hosted a Town Hall Conversation with participants at the NEA East Leadership Summit. Due to the session’s time limit, not all of the educators were able to have their questions answered during the General Session.

Van Roekel and Pringle, joined by NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen García, took the time to answer some additional questions following the session. Their responses are below.


AFT President Randi Weingarten has come out in opposition to value-added measures. When will you do the same?

Dennis:

I already have, and NEA took a big step when we filed a lawsuit in Florida against their entire evaluation system which is based on VAM. Not only have we already come out against it, but we will do more, and you will hear more and more as we attack the very fundamental premise of the accountability system.


How do we show the value of our organization to individuals who want to learn how to advocate but are reluctant to join?

Lily:

By example. There is nothing you can say to a potential member that is as powerful as what you do, so you’re showing people why you’re proud, what you’re doing. You have to be able to talk about what your association is doing to make your life better on the local, state, and national level.

Since we have been having the same conversations with legislatures and congressmen for years, and very little has changed in ed. policy and ed. funding, are we going to have to change our approach and tactics? If so, what changes should we make and how can we engage the “other side?”

Becky:

Yes, we do have to change our tactics. A couple of things. If we don’t have the right policymakers in place, then we need to replace them. We need to put educators in those policy-making positions. Number two, we’ve thought about the fact that we always build our success on electing the right policymaker and then we get the right policy. We now know that’s not always the case, whether we’re electing who we consider to be friends of election—Republicans or Democrats—or those who are not. They’re not always providing the policies, so we need to switch that cycle of success to focusing on educators, our members who are driving policy practice from the bottom up and making sure they have that policy at all levels, from the local, to the state, to the national.


If the answer to how is yes, then my question is when? When we can write our own Common Core that is developmentally appropriate, creatively satisfying and motivationally sound, and what can I do to get this started?

Dennis:

We are advocating that the standards have a continuous improvement process with massive engagement of professionals all over the country, and each two or three years we make the adjustment to continuously improve the standards.


If NEA could give advice on increasing minority memberships so that members can help student educators get involved in leadership, what would that be?

Dennis:

Number one, we need to actively recruit more ethnic minorities into the education professions.

Becky:

We also need to make sure they stay, so we need to provide them with the support they need to be successful. And they also need to see that their local or their state cares about the issues that they’re passionate about so that they see that there’s a place for them in their union where they can advocate for issues around poverty, parental involvement and community outreach, and issues around ensuring that all students have the resources they need to be successful.

Lily:

Part of the answer to increasing minority membership is that they need to see our local, state, and national association as that advocate for minority students. They need to say “Their heart is in the right place. I want to belong to an organization that cares about my community.”


Guns and school violence are concerns that are garnering huge societal scrutiny. In what ways can we shift the focus to mental illness and supporting our students in need?

Dennis:

NEA has advocated a three-pronged approach. Number one: make sure the school facilities are as safe as they can possibly be. Two: provide additional resources for mental health services and counseling. And number three: pass common sense legislation that will decrease gun violence.


How can we engage more ESP leaders?

Becky:

I had a conversation with an ESP leader from Maine who’s a paraprofessional, and we talked about this question. We are working on what we call ‘elevating’ the ESP careers, in which we’re working with our ESPs to make sure they know, as well as everyone else knows, the value they bring to the education of our students. Our ESP leaders need to embrace this concept of leading the profession. When she was talking to me she said “We’re actually working with the teachers as they’re implementing the Common Core, because we’re working with students. We need training on the Common Core, and we need to be involved in that planning on how we’re going to be used.” What we’re encouraging our ESP members to do is to understand and own their responsibility in the education of all of our students, and to speak up and speak out on all of the issues affecting students.


How do we lead with all our fears?

Dennis:

We need to lead with vision, lead with purpose, and lead with action. Courage is often misunderstood. Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is acting in spite of fear.