Introducing NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia

Stephon Johnson | 8/28/2014, 12:46 p.m.

Sitting in the Starbucks on 145th Street & Bradhurst Ave., National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia's enthusiasm takes over the quiet space. Speaking on her life journey towards education and her new position, Garcia touched on every current hot button issue in education and how she's using her past to determine the future of teaching America's children.

"Did you really call me Mrs. Eskelsen?" she said at the beginning of her interview with the AmNews. "When anyone calls me Mrs. Eskelsen, I assume I had them before as fifth graders. That has happened more than once!"

Garcia - along with Rebecca Pringle and Princess Moss will - will serve as President, Vice President and Secretary-Treasurer for NEA respectively. It is the first time the NEA has been led by women. All three are women of color with Pringle and Moss being African-American and Garcia being Latina.

"Pringle, Princess and I have been telling our stories to each other a lot recently," said Garcia when discussing the newfound attention. So people have been curious with not only how we got to this place but three women of color being leaders of the biggest most powerful union in this country. You don't go to high school and graduate thinking I want to be a union leader. Everyone has a story about how we got here."

Garcia' mother is from Panama and her father, a Mississippi native, was a soldier in the Canal Zone from who had lied about his age to escape a sharecropper's life back home.

"He wanted an adventure," said Garcia. "He signs up., he meets my mom and they fall in love. Six kids later..."

Education, of college variety, wasn't really emphasized in Garcia's home. Her father dropped out of school in 8th grade and her mom was the first in her family to graduate high school. "There's no college expectation in my family," she said. "It was that 'my kids will graduate from high school.'"

Garcia met her husband in high school and got married soon after graduation. But she had to work and she knew exactly who she wanted to work with. She knew she liked working with kids because she liked babysitting. She wanted to become a day care aide, but only found work in the kitchen as a "salad girl" at a Head Start program. Eventually, an opening for an aide surfaced and she got that job and she worked there for two years. It was there that Garcia received a suggestion that would change her life.

"The kindergarten teacher there said 'you're so good with these kids. They love you. You should go to college and become a teacher,'" said Garcia. "That was the first time anyone in my life had ever suggested that I go to college. I was 20 years old. I then realized that I could be working with some kid and say, 'you are really good at this. You don't realize that you can organize a project like nobody's business.'"

Garcia and her husband survived off of loans Pell Grants, Scholarships, his army salary and playing folks music at bars around the University of Utah. After giving birth to her first child she arranged her class schedule so that at either her or her husband were always taking care of the child. She eventually graduated from Utah magna cum laude in elementary education and eventually earned her master's degree in instructional technology.

When it came time to teach, Garcia differed from the norm as well. When most teachers were nervous, Garcia welcomed her 5th grade class with open arms.

"I loved it from the moment I stepped in front of the kids," said Garcia. "I'm not normal." She knew how to appeal to children and get the best out them because she admittedly wasn't the best test taker. Which is why she decries the current educational reform movement led by the like Michelle Rhee, that emphasize test scores above everything else. Garcia compared it to telemarketers learning a script when she spoke of how teachers are trained to teach towards the test.

They're taking all the worst lessons of corporate America," Garcia said. "Privatize, standardize and deprofessionalize. As if our students were products on an assembly line. But they do that because they don't expect telemarketers to be highly-trained professionals."

Garcia declared that similar tactics don't work for all schools. She said the solutions to any school's problems must be treated on an individual basis since all schools aren't in the same town, city, village or state. She pointed to a combination of data analysis, teacher and administrative input, parental insight and student suggestions as the only way to combat issues that plague many public schools today.

Garcia also recommend a lot less programs like Teach for America...or at least a different business model of that program.

"Teach for America isn't in their kids' schools are they?" Garcia asked rhetorically when speaking of supporters of TFA who send their own kids to private institutions. "So if they really believed that the most experienced, highest qualified, well-prepared teachers should be n the communities that have the most disadvantages, why doesn't Teach for America say "we'll go to the rich schools and free that teacher up to go there." They don't do that won't they? Because those rich families wouldn't stand for it."

"I've talked to so many of the TFA candidates," continued Garcia. "The young people, they are wonderful, idealistic and are ready to do the right thing. But they think of a public school like the Peace Corps. And that's not their fault. They've been told this is like the peace corps. Do your two years and then leave."

Garcia said that in order for schools in disadvantaged area to function better, they need a stable, experienced, faculty. She pointed out that TFA receives $6,000 to $8,000 for every placement, but isn't responsible for paying the teacher's salary (the district does).

"If those teachers went 'I love it and I want to stay!....If all of the TFA teachers stayed, the business model would fall apart. They're built on a churn system. And it's not the fault of those young graduates."

Garcia's looking to change things by stabilizing them. It makes you wonder why didn't anyone think of that before.