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Changing of the Guard


NEA says farewell to president Dennis Van Roekel, and welcomes new leader Lily Eskelsen García

By Brenda Álvarez and Edward Graham

Dennis Van Roekel’s mark on NEA is indelible. Still, he shies away from claiming any long-lasting personal legacy. Instead, he believes that the organization’s mission and vision have guided his tenure, giving him the opportunity to move NEA forward and build upon the organization’s commitment to shape and influence public education.

Before he became NEA’s top leader, Dennis
Van Roekel was president of the Arizona
Education Association, as well as the
Paradise Valley Education Association.

Van Roekel—who taught high school in Phoenix for more than two decades—became president in 2008. His election was the culmination of a passionate career as an educator, Association leader, and advocate for public education.

As president-elect, he stressed the power of advocating for the profession, using collective voice and action, and building partnerships. The goal: To fulfill the promise of public education, and prepare every student for success.

Van Roekel has remained true to his word. Through the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, in the face of unprecedented, unrelenting, and well-funded attacks on unions and public education, and in the midst of the largest membership rollbacks in NEA history, Van Roekel has advanced the Association’s mission, goals, and strategic priorities.


Van Roekel is greeted by fifth graders at
Summit Elementary School in LaCrosse, Wisc.

“I will always be a believer in the power and the promise of public education—the only real driver toward equity and excellence for all students,” Van Roekel said during his final remarks at NEA’s Annual Meeting in Denver. “I will be steadfast in my belief that NEA is the only organization…with the capacity in terms of structure and finances and people to make our vision a reality… . And I want this organization to always be the kind of organization that has the audacity to dream big, the courage to act, the power to make a difference.”

Van Roekel introduces Vice President Joe Biden at the 2011 NEA Representative Assembly in Chicago.

From renewed attention to so-called education “reform,” unprecedented attacks on workers’ rights across the nation, and issues of school safety, Van Roekel has worked tirelessly to combat an onslaught of threats. Simultaneously, he has called on educators to empower themselves to lead their profession by coming together to lift up good ideas, smart policies, and successful programs that lead to student success.

“Dennis has been a mentor, guardian angel, and personal UniServ director,” Maddie Fennell says, referring to Van Roekel’s capacity of making himself available to provide direct support and assistance to members so that they achieve their goals.

Fennel was named Nebraska Teacher of the Year in 2007 and served as chairperson of NEA’s Commission for Effective Teachers and Teaching in 2011. “I would not be a teacher, or a teacher leader, if it weren’t for the time and advice that Dennis has so generously given since my days as a student leader—and I just completed my 24th year of teaching!”

Last year, Van Roekel announced the creation of a $60 million fund to support nationwide efforts to improve student success and strengthen the teaching profession through teacher-led empowerment initiatives. The Great Public Schools fund gives educators the resources to generate solutions that call for innovative thinking on the part of all key education stakeholders, unions included. “It’s about showing the nation that we are the experts in supporting student success,” he says of the fund.

Van Roekel also established the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching. The group’s members—accomplished teachers, expert researchers, policymakers, and academicians—examine the policies and practices governing the teaching profession to ensure teachers are profession-ready.

Under Van Roekel’s leadership, NEA—for the first time ever—called for a comprehensive overhaul of teacher evaluation and accountability systems to advance student learning.

Van Roekel credits his success to the supportive team of educators and Association leaders who have provided guidance for the past six years. But those who know Van Roekel understand that he has not budged from the core values of the Association.

“He has lead with strength, compassion, understanding, and vision,” says Kay Brilliant, a long-time friend and colleague of Van Roekel. “Our students, our members, our public schools, our mission are always in his work and thoughts. He has been the voice of members where ever he goes.”

Van Roekel leaves the president’s post confident about the Association’s future, which will now be determined by former vice president, Lily Eskelsen García. Under her guidance, he says NEA will continue to be a powerful voice for educators and public schools.

“Lily’s going to be the most dynamic spokesperson I think we’ve ever had,” he says. “She will make people take notice, and she will make our members feel good that she’s at the helm. The passion that brought her into the profession and the obstacles that she swept out of her way so that she could become a teacher will always be there when she speaks for the organization.”

A lifetime commitment to public education


Three decades ago, she was known as “Miss Lily” to a group of students she taught at a homeless shelter. She was “Miss Eskelsen” to the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders she taught at Orchard Elementary School outside of Salt Lake City. This September, Eskelsen García will assume the reins as president of the nation’s largest labor union.

Her resume runs the full gamut. Her first job was as a cafeteria worker. Later, she became a kindergarten aide, attended college, and became an elementary school teacher.

Eskelsen García’s students were varied. Some were gifted. Others had disabilities, were homeless, or learning English. Once, she taught a gifted, homeless student with disabilities who was also learning English.

Eskelsen Garcia visits and asks questions of fourth graders at Kit Carson Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nev.

In 1989, Eskelsen García was named Utah Teacher of the Year. Not only was she a highly effective teacher, she was also a talented artist, who played the guitar and belted out a tune in the right key. She often strummed for her students, and once played before 10,000 of her Utah colleagues during a rally protesting inadequate school funding. Her song, “The Utah Teacher Blues,” intensified her notoriety.

A year later, Eskelsen García was elected president of the Utah Education Association (UEA) as a write-in candidate. She also put her 20 years of experience working with small children toward a run for U.S. Congress. The bid was unsuccessful, but she was the first Utah Hispanic to run for Congress, earning 45 percent of the vote against the incumbent.

“Lily is a fierce advocate for children. She is first and foremost a teacher. Lily’s passion for ensuring that all students have opportunities for success is evident in all that she does. While president of the UEA, she established the UEA Children at Risk Foundation, a non-profit that provides grants and tutoring to high-need students, classrooms, and schools. The Children at Risk Foundation is still in existence today as a constant reminder of Lily’s commitment to children.”

Eskelsen García’s trajectory led to NEA, where she was elected an executive committee member in 1996 and secretary-treasurer in 2002; she was elected NEA vice president in 2008, and has been an outspoken advocate for the teaching profession, students, and learning.


At a 2013 Washington, D.C. rally,
Lily Eskelsen
García calls for
congressional action on
comprehensive immigration reform.

She has used her position to speak on behalf of DREAMers who are seeking a path to U.S. citizenship, and has been a vocal opponent of policies driven by testing mania. Eskelsen García has also confronted the activities of anti-public education, anti-union groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which deregulate, defund, and privatize public education to increase profits.

Her goal as NEA president is to show that the only way to restore hope for educators across the country is to come together with millions of their colleagues and be a full-throttle force in the profession—a profession that knows what is best for students and the future of public education.

“Something has been taken away from us, where we feel like some politician or some billionaire now gets to define what it means to teach and learn, and that the people who actually know the names of the kids don’t matter,” says Eskelsen García, adding that the yardstick used to measure the things that matter in public schools must come from the teaching profession.

And she’s confident she can do that as her predecessor leaves behind a well positioned and strong organization with deep ties into communities that support public education.

“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,” Eskelsen García says.


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