Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García: The Makings of a Social Justice Warrior

Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García: The Makings of a Social Justice Warrior

Article excerpt

Lily Eskelsen Garcias sixth grade students had homework to do. In reviewing current events in the classroom, they began to dig deeper and ask questions. They determined that some controversial issues with discrimination, violence and other tragedies were just "not fain'Eskelsen Garcia would push them one step further and ask, "What are you going to do about it?"

They wrote letters to congressmen, held blood drives, starred in their own productions. They learned the power of an individual voice and the power of many voices coming together for one cause. "They became little social justice warriors," says Eskelsen Garcia.

They learned from the best.

Over the years, Eskelsen García has not been afraid of using her voice, especially when it comes to social justice rights for students and teachers. "My parents taught me my social justice heart. My mom told us to be good thinkers, not to believe something just because you hear it, and to ask questions."

She took the lessons to heart. Now she is the face of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher union in the country, and the voice of its more than 3 million members. Those numbers incmde 200,000 higher education members, JEA the largest college and university staff organization in the country. In July Eskelsen Garcia was elected as NEA's first Latina president - and first woman president since 1983. She is part of the first all-minority, all-female NEA leadership team. The NEA platform is immense, the outreach, grand, and the expectations, plentiful. Her focus is clear.

"This type of education politicians want is destroying the exciting, engaged learning possibilities for our students. We can agree on this point, compromise on that point, but I'm going to start with things we don't agree on. Teachers are the key to this passion, and assessments can be done without standardized testing. We need to get back to the core and passion of learning and teaching."

Her teaching background and personal standards seem to make her relatable to teachers, but she is also a fearless, formidable force protecting them. She has called statements from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan "stupid," while expounding on letting teachers do their job, and calling out educators who compromise students' well-being for financial gain.

"I'm very direct," she says. "Not rude or shrewd, but it doesn't always sound polite. I taught my sons and students to be polite, but you never want to be too polite when a point needs to be made."

And she believes several vital points need to be made to keep the integrity of teaching at the forefront of what matters in reforming the United States public education system.

"I feel educators are under fire," she says. "But there's hope. There's this quiet revolution going on. Superintendents and principals are coming on board, where they see that less attention should be focused on standardized tests and more attention should be on teaching the whole child."

Although she didn't officially start her NEA presidential post until September, she hit the road in August with a "Back to School Tour." In California, she loved the approach to changing to common core learning and revisiting the entire standardized test route.

Any changes will take time, but Duncan has also hit the pause button saying there will be a moratorium to study the high stakes consequences of cut scores and failing teachers, and how the tests are affecting students and their performance - and their lives, she says.

"Yay - that's a good thing," says Eskelsen Garcia. "But what happens after that time? I'm going to spend this precious moratorium time to convince you that there is a better way to assess students and critical thinking."

Eskelsen García has a hard time swallowing the problem of a third grader not being promoted to fourth grade because he didn't hit a cut score. "Assessment based on hitting cut scores on a standardized test is like a factory mentality. …

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