From Teacher of the Year to NEA president

Twenty-five years after she was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year, Lily Eskelsen García is president-in-waiting of the National Education Association (NEA), reports Richard Lee Colvin. Eskelsen García, 58, left full-time teaching a year after winning the honor to fight for higher salaries and smaller class sizes. (Utah ranks 50th in both categories.)
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Now an NEA vice president, she’s running unopposed to replace Dennis Van Roekel.

Born Lilia Laura Pace in Texas in 1955, Eskelsen García did not plan to go to college. Her father worked for the U.S. Army. Her Panamanian mother had left school after 8th grade. 

She married Ruel Eskelsen right after graduating from high school. He enlisted in the Army.  She got a job in a school cafeteria. A kindergarten teacher “noticed how well she connected with the students and urged her to go to college to become a teacher,” writes Colvin.

“After her husband got out of the Army, they both enrolled at the University of Utah, supporting themselves with help from the GI Bill, loans, financial aid, and money they earned singing, accompanied by Eskelsen García on the guitar.”

She was graduated magna cum laude with a degree in elementary education and later earned a master’s degree in instructional technology. She began teaching at Orchard Elementary School outside of Salt Lake City in 1980.

Teachers worked as a team, sharing ideas and taking on additional duties to allow a colleague to spend more time with a group of kids producing a play or exploring a topic such as the civil rights movement in greater depth. Her love of music found its way into many of her lessons— she taught her students to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution by singing it, for example.

Eskelsen García supports Common Core standards, saying the authors heeded input from expert teachers.

“Every time I turned the page I thought, my God, this is how I teach, it really was,” she says. “Critical thinking skills, collaborate on problem solving, create, design, give me evidence of, give me your opinion and tell me why I should believe you, and organize a project.”

But she fears that standardized tests will not include those skills and that they’ll be eliminated from the curriculum.

. . . “If you see that there is no change in high-stakes testing; no change in obsessive test prep; no change in labeling students, teachers, and schools by that standardized test score, you’ll know that they don’t really care about higher-level, critical thinking skills, and that it was all just a PR ploy.”

Tests should be used to guide instruction rather than to judge performance, she tells Colvin.

She’s campaigned against “GERM,” which she says stands for “global education reform movement.”

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