Lily Eskelsen García will become president of the National Education Association. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Her first job after high school was “salad girl” in a school cafeteria. She worked her way through college playing the guitar in coffeehouses and became Utah’s teacher of the year. On Sept. 1, Lily Eskelsen García, 59, will take over as head of the National Education Association, reports the Washington Post.
The NEA is the nation’s largest labor union, representing one in 100 Americans. But it’s been losing membership and political support.
She is already fighting back with blunt talk, urging teachers nationwide to revolt against “stupid” education reforms and telling politicians to leave teaching to the professionals.
Her first priority: Putting the brakes on standardized testing, an issue she says she believes will resonate not only with her members but also with parents — important potential allies for the political clashes she sees ahead. García says that the country is in the grip of testing mania, the quest for high scores killing joy, narrowing curriculums and perverting the learning process.
“I’ll be damned if I will sit quietly and play nice and say diplomatic things about something that has corrupted the profession I love,” García said.
The union has clashed with the Obama administration on testing and teacher evaluations, notes the Post. In July, the NEA demanded Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s resignation.
Duncan and Rep. George Miller, a liberal Democrat, “shocked teachers in June when they applauded a Los Angeles judge’s ruling that California’s teacher tenure laws were unconstitutional,” reports the Post.
The movement to weaken teachers’ job protections has gone national.
García, an elementary teacher, got into union politics after being chosen “teacher of the year.” At a union conference, she played her guitar and sang an original composition: “I’m-a-Teacher-and-I-Got-To-Work-In-Utah Blues.”
The daughter of a Panamanian immigrant, Garcia was the first in her family to go to college.
Her husband of 38 years committed suicide three years ago after struggling with depression for years.
“Both her sons have struggled with drug addiction,” reports the Post. The younger son, has spent time in prison for theft and burglary. García, who adopted Jared when he was 4, rescuing him from an early childhood of abuse, said, “I thought: ‘I’m a great teacher. I’ve got all this love.’ But that’s not how it works.”