A narrative over the past 30 years about failing public school systems has devalued and diminished the role of educators, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel told members of the Wyoming Education Association on Saturday.
He called on the members of the association’s annual Delegate Assembly to have the courage to believe they can make a difference and to take action to regain the public’s respect.
The narrative goes that too many students fail, and investing money isn’t leading to good results, Van Roekel said.
People say teachers can’t assess students well, or give students what they need. The evidence they cite is test scores in math and reading, he said.
Then they blame the teachers’ union as the biggest obstacle in efforts to change the system. Fallout includes less money for teacher training and salaries.
“And I don’t know if this is their intent, but it is definitely a consequence: they are de-professionalizing teaching,” he said.
Before that narrative started, public education was seen not as the problem, but the solution, Van Roekel said. The previous 30 years were marked by huge investments in teachers and education, including the National Defense Education Act.
“We’re doing the wrong things for kids, and, as educators, we’re not holding our ground,” Van Roekel said. “We’re losing respect, we’re losing status, we’re losing benefits.”
The mission of the NEA is to advocate for educators — a worthy mission, Van Roekel said. It’s also to fulfill the promise of public education: to prepare every student to succeed, he added.
Too often, educators are told what to do by those who don’t have a clue, he said. Van Roekel encouraged his listeners to take the initiative.
“Why do we depend on other people’s systems of data collection?” he asked. “When you go to a parent conference, do you really only want to know [a child’s] test scores?” He encouraged teachers to do things such as prepare a set of information to give to parents. No rule says they can’t.
“So my motto is: proceed until apprehended,” Van Roekel said.
Educators should be so dissatisfied with the way things are that they want to make changes to benefit all students, Van Roekel said. He left the association delegates with a call to have “the audacity to dream big” and the courage to play their part to promote equal opportunities and a just society, and to assume the power to make their vision a reality. The organization can make a difference for all the right reasons, he said.
Several educators said they left the conference inspired.
“We’re in the trenches with our passions and our professional knowledge,” said Ariane Eicke, who teaches high school in Laramie. But those attributes are not always appreciated and tapped.
She wants to continue to be more involved in having a voice and encouraging others to do the same.
Leah Lange, who teaches second grade at Casper’s Southridge Elementary School, was one who said she left more inspired to look beyond data. For example, in a parent-teacher conference, don’t focus overly on math and reading scores, but save plenty of time to talk about what interests the students and how to reach them.
“You can bring that into your lessons and you can find that creativity that’s been lost,” Lange said.