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NEA Insider: Interview with President Dennis Van Roekel

TeachHUB Interview

NEA Insider: Interview with President Dennis Van Roekel

How will you distinguish yourself from previous NEA presidents?

NEA’s mission—great public schools for every student—is bigger than any one individual’s intentions. It’s more about the students our 3.2 million members serve. My goal is to continue the work of the Association in creating great public schools for all children.

Obviously, I am going to have projects and issues that are “near and dear” to my heart. However, make no mistake about it. I plan for this Association to stay the course of making sure that all children—regardless of their race, zip code, or economic status—have access to quality public schools.

What has been your most rewarding moment in education (either in the classroom or as an NEA activist)?

I wanted to become president of NEA for the very same reason I became a teacher decades ago: at my core, I have a fundamental commitment and desire to educate children. After spending decades in the classroom, it became clear to me that no matter how committed a teacher I might be or how good of a teacher I might be, or how well my students learned or connected to me, the single largest influence on students’ performance was nowhere near my classroom—or any other classroom.

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It didn’t take long for me to learn that policymakers at the local, state and federal level have more influence on what goes on in schools and classrooms than the educators who work there. I’ve watched for nearly seven years as educators have dealt with the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind, a law with noble goals, but with fundamental flaws—and student performance hasn’t improved. Students have learned to be better test takers, but not critical thinkers, problem solvers or any other of the critical skills that will make them competitive and successful in this changing world.

Educating all of the nation’s children and ensuring each and every child—regardless of race, parental income or address—can attend great public schools is something I believe in, something central to who I am as a teacher—who I am as a person. Serving NEA, the nation’s children and representing the nation’s educators is the best way I can advocate for our 3.2 million members and the children they serve.

What NEA initiative are you most personally invested in?

The first order of business since becoming NEA president was to help elect a friend of public education—and NEA members—as president of the United States of America. There were big and important issues in this campaign, but none more important to the long-term future of America than public education.

What realistic changes do you anticipate the Obama administration will bring to the average teacher?

President Obama has made it clear that the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law must be changed. He supports making health care available to every American child. Obama has said repeatedly that, while teachers need to be held accountable for what goes on in the classroom, every teacher deserves a living wage. And he supports reducing class sizes to improve student achievement

What is the most significant change needed in the education profession?

My priorities during the next three years will be linked to the mission of this Association—making sure that all kids have access to a quality education and great public schools. Obviously, to reach that goal, there will be a number of issues we must address … including closing the achievement gaps, lowering the dropout rate, meeting the needs of English Language Learners, making sure our public schools are adequately and equitably funded and, of course, making the necessary changes to NCLB.

How can the NEA, as an organization, and individual teachers make that change a reality?

To be successful, we will need to partner with elected leaders at the federal level to come up with well-designed policies that support the delivery of quality education programs for every student in our public schools. We want to redefine the role of the federal government and thereby transform our public schools.  The good news is, as educators, we know these problems inside and out … and as a result … we also know what needs to be done to address them. We know what works best in the classroom and for children.

As president of this Association, I want to show parents, lawmakers—entire communities—that the NEA is a valuable voice to listen to and have at the table when it comes to deciding the future of public education and our children.

You’ll also see the organization continuing to build partnerships with those we’ve worked with because we share common beliefs, but increasingly, you’ll see us talking with those who might share our goals, but disagree with us on how to get there. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that if it were only up to the millions of educators in schools across this country to ensure our goals were met—we’d be there by now. The fact is, it’s going to take more than working within our ranks, it’s going to mean talking to those we haven’t worked as closely with, or even talked with before.  It’s time to change how the game is played so we can actually get things done—the children we serve deserve no less.

Some claim that union protection makes firing “bad teachers” so difficult that students’ education suffer. Do you think that union efforts to protect teachers ever negatively impact students?

Quite the opposite. NEA and other unions work to change and improve the quality of education for the nearly 50 million public school students in the United States. Since NEA’s establishment in 1857, strengthening the quality of classroom teaching has been at the center of its organizational mission. NEA works with researchers, educators and policymakers to assure a qualified, competent, caring educator in every American classroom and has dramatically increased the standards for the colleges and universities that prepare teachers. NEA’s standards for high-quality teacher professional development are being implemented nationwide, because good staff development programs can reinvigorate teachers.

I see that you recently revamped the NEA Web site. What objectives are you hoping to achieve with the new site?

NEA is constantly adapting to fully utilize the political muscle of our 3.2 million members for the good of the country, and to make sure every student attends a quality public school.

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