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Interview with NEA President Dennis Van Roekel

Dennis Van Roekel, a math teacher from Arizona, was elected president of NEA at the 2008 Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C., this past July. Van Roekel has served in numerous key Association offices, including NEA Vice President, NEA Secretary-Treasurer, Arizona Education Association President, and Paradise Valley Education Association President. He begins serving a three-year term September 1.

What do you remember about your first year as a classroom teacher?

I recall being quite anxious. The learning curve was steep and I wanted to do a good job. I remember in particular being overwhelmed by all the paperwork and policies that the school had. What on earth do I do with all these forms and slips of paper? Am I going to get the right ones to the right places? When am I going to prepare for my class? I depended a lot on my colleagues and by my second year, I felt so much more comfortable. I settled down quite a bit in my second year. I knew how to anticipate situations better.

Did you ever think, "Maybe this isn't the right career choice for me?"

Sure, usually around April 15! Money was always tight. In my first years as a teacher, I worked at a number of second jobs. So it got to the point where I just thought, "This is crazy," and one spring I began interviewing for other jobs and I almost accepted one. I remember driving down the street on the way to their offices for the final interview. Right before I made the turn, I just took my foot off the brake and kept on going.

What pulled you back?

Despite all the challenges, I just loved teaching. I loved the challenges and the interactions with the students and my colleagues. It's a great thing to create an environment in which the student would learn. My wife has commented that when I left in the morning, I would say "I'm going to school," not "I'm going to work." It's a tough job, but it's also where I loved to be.

How does the Association help younger members with the challenges they face?

We need to promote mentoring programs, which are absolutely crucial in helping new teachers stay after the first year. I've visited states that have successful programs and have made a huge difference for new teachers. We need to spotlight these success stories and help get funding for mentoring.

The student debt issue is huge. Teaching has to be competitive with other professions that require a college degree. We will continue our work on increasing the starting salary.

We can also look where the system places teachers in their first years. Some new teachers are teaching in very difficult, problem-ridden schools. Being a new educator is tough enough without them having to deal with some of the extra issues plaguing many schools.  That's a formula for disaster.

What role can new educators play in advancing these goals? 

What I try to hit home with younger teachers is the reality that elected officials and the decisions they make impact their classrooms every day. Too many don't see the connection. If you don't like what is happening to our schools—get involved.

Together, we can make a difference. I want to help new members realize that they have a strong stake in engaging in the political process to help improve public schools.

What one book do you think all new teachers should read?

One that I used in my classroom a lot was Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The concepts he lays out were quite good at helping me think about my classroom lessons in a new way, especially how to get students involved. One is "Seek to understand first and then be understood"; another is "Begin with the end in mind." I always told my students that the purpose of my math class wasn't about getting an A on the test. Instead, I would ask them what their goals in life were. We would have these conversations, and I would relate their goals to my teaching. My students then knew that doing well in class would help prepare them for where they were going.

Photo: Rick Runion

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