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NEA President Dennis Van Roekel addresses the 91st Representative Assembly

WASHINGTON - July 02, 2012 -

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel opened the Association’s 91st Representative Assembly today with a challenge to members to stand up for their profession and come together in a united mission to transform America’s public schools into world class institutions of learning.

Following are Van Roekel’s remarks as prepared for delivery.

Welcome to the 150th Annual Meeting and the 91st Representative Assembly. Thank you – thank you for that warm reception … and thank you, Lily, for the kind introduction.

I want to first acknowledge both Lily and Becky - simply amazing. Not only for their incredible talents and skills – but for their courage, their leadership, and their complete understanding of what it means to collaborate and work as partners. You two inspire me every day – I can’t imagine doing this job without you.

I want to also acknowledge the Executive Committee and Board of Directors – what a fantastic job you do! Your commitment to students and public education is so evident – and I see your dedication to this organization and our members in everything you do. You make me proud and honored to be your colleague.

And to all of you – each and every one of you in this room – thank you for your passion and commitment.

This has been a challenging year for our country. I know it has also challenged you, as well as our members back home. Not just in some states, but in EVERY state.

I know how hard you worked – to stand up for our members and to serve our students, from pre-K to graduate. And you do it each and every day – it’s who you are – it’s what we do.

In the rush of daily events, we don’t always take time to reflect upon the profound TRUST placed in us - or the enormous difference we make in the lives of so many students.

It’s funny how an everyday thing, something that seems ordinary and routine, can also take on powerful significance. I remember one special day, many years ago, when I drove my two sons to school – they were in first and third grade.

As I pulled up to the school, I gave them each a kiss and a hug before they hopped out of the car. As I watched those two little guys walk up the main sidewalk onto the playground to join the many students there, I was suddenly struck by such a powerful feeling – and I remember, to this day, exactly what went through my mind.

I was hoping that every adult at that school understood that I just given them, the most precious gift in my life – my children.

I wanted them to realize how important it was, to me, for those two little guys to have a great day … to learn, to smile, to laugh, and to end the day feeling good and eager to return to school the next day.

I think every parent feels that way. Whether they’re sending their child off to first grade, or leaving them in the dorm room for their first day of college. It’s routine, it happens every day, yet it’s extraordinary.

Parents are bringing their students to us - literally putting their future in our hands. Entrusting us with the most important part of their world.

We do not take that trust lightly … We never forget the importance of our work as we help shape and influence the lives of almost every student in America.

Because we, the more than three million members of the National Education Association – WE … EDUCATE … AMERICA.

We Educate America!

From pre-school to community colleges to graduate schools

Students from every zip code, students of every age.

And at this time – in a world of competition and a world of change – our work is so important to our country.

Our work not only opens the door of opportunity for students – it drives the economy, and it fuels the engine of democracy.

We’re everywhere. We’re in the classroom, the library, the computer lab, the college campuses.

We’re there every day – driving the buses, preparing the food, keeping the school clean and safe.

We coach the teams, advise the clubs, counsel the students who just need to talk.

We educate to realize America’s dreams – it is OUR work … OUR profession.

But that sure doesn’t stop everyone from having an opinion on how to do our work, does it?

We all know, there are plenty of people who are eager to offer advice … or worse, try to impose their ideas on our profession.

Bloggers, columnists, elected officials and self-proclaimed “reformers” – they are constantly weighing in about public education.

I mean, they have an opinion on everything – the WHO, the WHAT, the WHEN, the WHERE and the HOW – about public education.

The “WHO” they love to talk about and blame are teachers – as if this disjointed and underfunded system is the fault of those who teach.

But the real problem is the profiteers and mega-rich Wall Street folks who created an economic crises that has our country and the world reeling.

And the solution isn’t to attack educators; it’s to give RESPECT … THAT’s what will attract talented young people to become teachers and Education Support Professionals!

The other part of the “WHO” in education is the students, and the demographics are rapidly changing. The majority of America’s students will soon be ethnic minorities, and one in five children in our country today lives in poverty. Instead of focusing on solutions to help students, too many keep looking for ways to maximize profits.

And by the way, educators can’t do everything ourselves. We know that we have to partner with parents, with business leaders, with people in the community, to create great public schools. We all have a role to play.

As far as WHAT we teach, that has also changed dramatically. No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on standardized tests, has distorted public education by narrowing the curriculum and eliminating programs.

We spend endless time getting students ready for and taking standardized tests - all at the expense of literature that inspires students, or history that helps them understand, or the arts that help them express themselves.

The WHERE discussion in education is all over the map, with advocates for home schooling, charter schools, private schools, and of course, neighborhood schools. And with today’s technology, “where” doesn’t even have to be a specific place; it’s anywhere, with online courses, blended learning, flipped classrooms, massive online open courses.

And the WHEN discussion? Well, they say we no longer live in an agrarian society, so why shouldn’t students attend school all year? There are debates about a longer day and a longer school year.

Everybody talks about the “when,” with one glaring exception – EARLY CHILDHOOD education.

The importance of early childhood education is obvious, the research is clear.

I know of no family of means that denies that experience for their own children. Yet there is an almost total silence about providing the same opportunity for “other people’s children” – for ALL of America’s children.

And when you turn to the discussion of HOW education ought to be delivered – the flood gates open!

Everyone seems to know how WE ought to do OUR job. Too often it’s “Test the students, then test them some more” crowd. They want to Use those test scores to evaluate teachers, label students, and embarrass schools.

They seem to have no need for evidence or research – if it makes a good sound bite, they say, “Go for it!”

Amid all this talk about the who, what, when, where and how of public education, almost no one talks about the WHY of public education.

And that should be the starting point – because we have to answer that question before we ask the others.

If you ask our members – regardless of membership category - why they chose to work in education …why they teach … why they drive the school buses … counsel students, prepare food … why they are a nurse, why they clean the classrooms … the answer always comes down to the same thing.

It’s about STUDENTS. It’s ALWAYS about them.

So what is the purpose of PUBLIC education in the 21st Century? Why does it need to exist? What do we want it to achieve for students, for society, for America?

The purpose of public education is access and equity! That’s why it’s public!

Public education makes America STRONG. Studying history and civics help students become good citizens. Public education is the vehicle to teach American values and ideals – values like a just society, democracy, and equal opportunity.

And in a nation where equal OPPORTUNITY is one of our most deeply held values, education is the key that OPENS the DOOR to economic opportunity, for people from ALL backgrounds.

That’s why leaders from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King Jr. have understood the importance of education in our society.

Another obvious answer to the “why” question is student learning, the academic side of education.

Not a curriculum narrowed to fit the confines of high stakes standardized tests … but a rich curriculum that includes art, music, history, sports, drama, science …

A whole world of possibilities to explore … a whole universe that can inspire.

Education should prepare young people for the future, and help them discover their passion.

But there’s more to education than academics. So when we talk about the WHY of public education, we have to address the needs of the WHOLE CHILD.

That means including issues like health care, good nutrition, a safe family and school environment – ALL these things affect learning and impact student development.

We aren’t ONLY their teacher, or their bus driver, or the person who serves their lunch – we are an adult in that child’s life.

We never know when we might have an impact on their development, their growth as a person.

So we have to see them as more than a student at a desk.

One year I asked my high school math students to each write me a letter about their goals for my class, their aspirations, and to include one thing I didn’t know about them, but should. That night, as I was reading 160 letters, written just for me, one jumped out and grabbed me.

She wrote, “One thing Mr. Van Roekel doesn’t know about me is that my dad died two weeks before school started. I know school is important, it’s just hard to feel that right now.”

You realize at times like that, academics ARE important, but that’s not all a student needs.

You see, sometimes kids just need somebody to listen and understand - those important things that can’t be measured on a test where you bubble in the answer.

We obviously can’t address all these issues by ourselves - but we can create partnerships and work with other people to meet these needs.

And we can’t set education policy by ourselves – but we do have the power to influence it.

One way is through the political process, and we’re going to talk about that a lot over the next few days – because the election this year is critical for public education, and it’s also a turning point for the middle class in America.

And first on the list - we must do everything we can to re-elect President Barack Obama!

President Obama has earned our support. In his first term,

We know the other side will out-SPEND us in this election - but we can’t let them out-WORK us!

We WILL re-elect President Obama – ARE YOU READY?

Yes - We must engage in the political system.

But that isn’t enough.

To help students succeed in these challenging times, we must also harness the strength of our association to take CHARGE of the teaching profession. We need to support our members to define what good teaching looks like – so others can’t reduce good teaching to standardized tests.

And we must have a real say in how educators are prepared, trained and evaluated!

We’re all leaders in our union and our profession. We know how to bargain for a contract … how to mobilize our members for an election … how to advocate for legislation.

And we’ll keep doing all of those things, absolutely. But my question to you is this:

Are we willing to assert our leadership, and take RESPONSIBILITY for our professions?

The demands of our work are changing as our students change, and the world around us is changing too – ever so fast.

I say it is time for us to lead the next generation of professionals - in educating the next generation of students!

I’m so tired of OTHERS defining the solutions… without even asking those who do the work every day of their professional life.

I want to take advantage of this opportunity for US to lead - and I’m not waiting to be asked, nor am I asking anyone’s permission.

Because if we are not ready to lead, I know there are many others ready, willing, and waiting to do it for us. Or maybe I should say, do it “to” us.

There are plenty of people outside our profession who have their own ideas about what we should be doing, how we should be evaluated, and how to improve public education – like privatization, unregulated charters, and vouchers.

Frankly, our current system allowed the market for those ideas to exist. We are part of that system – a system that has not successfully addressed the drop-out crisis and allows kids who are poor to be stuck in schools that do not meet their needs – placed into classrooms year after year with the least qualified, least experienced teachers.

It’s not enough to say that most teachers are good. If there is even ONE classroom with a teacher who isn’t prepared or qualified, we can’t accept that.

Because this country is not about equal opportunity for MOST – it’s about equal opportunity for ALL. And this country in not about all the educational opportunity you can “afford” – it’s about all the educational opportunity our nation can provide – not for some but for ALL!

We stand for equity – and when we say equity, we’re not talking about the Bain Capital Private Equity Corporation!

When we talk about equity, we are saying that every child, and every classroom, deserves a great teacher and great support professionals! If the solutions others are attempting to impose on us don’t work for the students we serve – then we must take the responsibility to define solutions that do work – for every student.

So let’s use our collective power to RAISE the level of preparation for those coming into our profession … and IMPROVE the practice of those who are already here.

We’re professionals – and professionals are always looking for ways to raise their game.

And we know that ensuring student success in this fast-changing economy requires more from ALL of us.

And I believe that teachers are willing to take responsibility for student success –and they want and deserve a voice in how they’re trained, supported and evaluated.

So let’s demand that every educator – INCLUDING ESPs - receives the professional development and support they need to help students succeed.

Instead of waiting for someone to tell us what to teach or how to do our jobs, let US be the change we are waiting for.

Let’s lead a movement for new academic standards.

Let’s define the multiple measures of professional practice and evidence of student learning that we need.

And let’s learn how to use data and technology in new ways.

We’ll hear this week about a great program in which Education Support Professionals are visiting students’ homes, building relationships with parents, and they are using data to flag problems, design interventions, and track progress.

We’ll also hear about a project that is using technology to teach sciences, with embedded assessments so teachers know in real time when students don’t understand a point.

These are just a couple of many examples of what is happening across the country – our local affiliates are leading the way to improve the lives of students.

And that excites and energizes me … it gives me hope … because I know the power of this union.

The world has changed and society is asking more of us … our country NEEDS more from us.

But we don’t have to do it alone. We have each other … so we can do things together that none of us could POSSIBLY do by ourselves.

And not only that, but we can do things NOBODY ELSE can do.

Yes, we need help from parents, communities, business leaders … and we will work hard to create partnerships with them, especially in ethnic minority communities.

But we are NEA. WE educate America. And there are some things that we, and ONLY we, can do.

A few weeks from now, the class of 2025 will enter kindergarten. Imagine - almost four million 5-year-olds! Can’t you just see those faces?

I know one of them quite well. His name is Mason Van Roekel - my youngest grandson.

And just as I did so many years ago, his parents – my son and daughter-in-law - are entrusting him to us.

They’re putting his future in OUR hands … just as the parents of four million other children will be doing.

It’s a long way from that first day in kindergarten until they graduate from high school. And along the way, there are so many things we must do, to make the interventions to keep them on a path to success - because their world is going to keep changing, and the challenges are immense.

Demographics? – they reflect the increasing diversity of our nation.

Technology? – they have grown up using devices that I couldn’t even imagine when I began teaching. I mean, some of us still used slide rules back then.

Careers? – we can’t even fathom what kind of work many of them will do.

As these students navigate through this changing world, I hope we’ll constantly monitor their needs to help them stay on course.

I hope we’ll adapt and try whatever tactics are necessary to reach each one of them.

I hope we’ll be willing to push ourselves, to get better every day.

I hope we’ll do these things, because the dreams of these children are riding on US.

Yes, it’s a big responsibility – but it is not a burden, it’s a joyous responsibility that we readily embrace.

We are three million strong, and we have the greatest power in the world – THE POWER TO CHANGE LIVES.

So let’s USE that power!

Let’s use our power as individuals, and let’s use our collective strength - the power of three million working together, with passion and commitment, to improve the lives of all our students.

Let’s use our power to change one CLASSROOM at a time …

Let’s use our power to make PUBLIC EDUCATION stronger.

And let’s use our power to make our NATION a better place, moving ever closer to our great and noble ideal of equal opportunity – not just for a fortunate FEW, but for EVERY SINGLE CHILD.

Thank you, NEA, for all that you do for the students of our country.

Thank you.

CONTACT: Stacey Grissom (202) 822-7823,

VIDEO - NEA President Dennis Van Roekel Keynote Speech

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel Keynote Speech