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A Conversation: Dennis Van Roekel and Jermaine Coleman

The editors at Tomorrow’s Teachers recently caught up with Student Chair Jermaine Coleman and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. They let us listen in on their conversation about the NEA Student Program and first year teaching experiences:


Jermaine: What’s up Dennis? As you know, it’s my second year as chairperson of the Student Program, I want to keep our members energized. But after all the bad economic news this past year, I think some of them are feeling a little anxious about the challenges they will face in the classroom.

Dennis: That’s understandable. Schools were hit hard by difficult budget cuts, and I’m sure many of our student members are struggling to finance their own educations. But these issues are part of why organizations like NEA and the Student Program are around. It’s much easier to get through tough times, call for change, and get reforms enacted when you have 3.2 million educators and support professionals working collectively to reach the same goals. We speak with one voice, and a voice that loud gets heard.

Jermaine: Very true. I know my friends are ready to speak. With the midterm elections coming up this year, we’re going to make sure college affordability is an issue on candidates’ radar. And we know community service efforts are needed more than ever. We believe teaching is more than just being in the classroom, it’s about being part of the entire community.

Dennis: Sounds like you are keeping everyone active. It’s great to hear that our nation’s future educators are passionate about community involvement.

Jermaine: We’re also big on mentoring….so what do you say, Dennis? You spent 23 years in the classroom before becoming a leader at NEA--could you share some tips on what we should expect in our first year of teaching?

Dennis: Ah yes, my first year in the classroom. By the time February came around I thought I had messed up so much, I couldn’t wait for the next year to begin so I could start fresh. But I was learning from my mistakes so I would know exactly what I wanted to do over and do differently the following year.

Jermaine: Oh, man. How did you keep going?

Dennis: Even if you’re having a tough semester, you still have those moments where you know you’re reaching a student. That’s what keeps you going. Some of my fondest memories are talking with students I taught now that they’re adults – it’s amazing to hear their perspective now that they’re grown. I had a 2nd year algebra student who complained every day about my class, but always got an “A.” She ultimately became a teacher herself in Arizona. I went to visit her school and spent time talking to her once when I was home on break. I was blown away when she shared her memories of my class –it amazed me to know the difference we can make in a student’s life. I’ve had a student tell me that I was the first person who told her she could succeed.

Jermaine: Wow. That must have meant so much to her.

Dennis: You never know what you say or do that can have a profound impact – positive or negative – so you have to be conscious and aware for that reason. 

Jermaine: Thanks for these insights Dennis.

Dennis: No problem.  And you shouldn’t worry. It takes a compassionate and dedicated individual to become a great educator. With the activism and support of the Student Program and NEA, I know our members can be the best students today, best teachers in the coming years, and outstanding community leaders no matter what challenges arise.

Jermaine: Oh, I’m not worried. I know we all have what it takes. I’ve seen with my own eyes … we have the power to change students’ lives.



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