First Latina elected head of the nation’s largest teachers’ union

Lily Eskelsen Garcia began her career in education working at a school cafeteria, and now she is gearing up to become the head the nation’s largest…
First Latina elected head of the nation’s largest teachers’ union

Lily Eskelsen Garcia has been elected president of the National Education Association, making her the first Latina to hold the position. (NEA/Mona Shield Payne)

Lily Eskelsen Garcia began her career in education working at a school cafeteria, and now she is gearing up to become the head the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

She was elected president of the National Education Association over the weekend at the union’s annual convention in Denver, becoming the first Latina to hold the position. The union represents more than 3 million public school educators.

Eskelsen Garcia is currently the vice president of the NEA. She will take office as president on Sept. 1, and she already has big plans. At the top of her agenda is speaking up on the behalf of students and putting their needs at the center of the education system.

“We can no longer allow politicians who have never stepped into a classroom define what it means to teach and learn,” she said at the NEA’s annual meeting. “At a time when nearly 50 percent of public school children live in low-income families, our country must refocus its priorities on the needs of the whole child and bridge the gaps that have only grown over the last decade.”

SEE ALSO: Lily Eskelsen: From lunch lady to national education leader

Also on Eskelsen Garcia’s agenda is leading a campaign against high-stakes testing and other policies that she says detract from student learning. She also wants to encourage educators to be “fearless” and to “not be silent” when it comes to speaking up for students and their needs.

In addition, she wants to address immigration issues. Specifically, she wants to help ensure undocumented students brought to the United States by their parents at a young age are able to succeed in the classroom. Eskelsen Garcia comes from an immigrant family herself. Her mother emigrated to the U.S. from Panama and her maternal grandfather is from Nicaragua.

“Lily’s going to be the most dynamic spokesperson I think we’ve ever had, and she will make people take notice,” said outgoing NEA President Dennis Van Roekel in a statement. “She will continue to push for equity in education and carry on the organizations commitment to student-centered union leadership and social justice.”

From lunch lady to president of the NEA

Those who know Eskelsen Garcia know she comes from humble beginnings and faced a number of challenges to become a teacher.

“I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” she told VOXXI in a previous interview. “My parents bought us clothes at the thrift shop, and they were good clothes.”

Eskelsen Garcia first began working as a lunch lady for a school cafeteria before she was given a job as a kindergarten aide. Encouraged by the kindergarten teacher to become a teacher herself, Eskelsen Garcia went off to college.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia

Lily Eskelsen Garcia is also a folk singer. She sang the National Anthem at the opening of the NEA’s annual meeting. (Photo by Rick Runion)

She worked her way through the University of Utah on scholarships, student loans and as a folk singer. She graduated magna cum laude in elementary education and later earned her masters degree in instructional technology.

SEE ALSO: Hispanics go to college, but do they actually graduate?

Getting a college education was a big deal for Eskelsen Garcia.Her parents never went to college. Her mother graduated from high school, but her father never completed high school.

Eskelsen Garcia explained in the interview with VOXXI that for her parents, college wasn’t something they thought of for their children.

“It wasn’t that they were against it,” she explained. “It just wasn’t part of their history, it wasn’t part of their family.”

Her 20-year career as a teacher began at Orchard Elementary School in Salt Lake City where she taught for nine years before she was named the Utah Teacher of the Year in 1989. A year later, she was elected president of the Utah Education Association.

After losing a bid for Congress as a Democrat, her career path led her to join the NEA. She moved up the ranks and was elected vice president of the union in 2008. Two years later, President Barack Obama appointed her to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, a national commission whose goal is to address issues that make it difficult for Latino students to succeed.

Throughout the years, Eskelsen Garcia has advocated for a number of issues, including creating a path to citizenship for undocumented students, improving programs for English language learners and training teachers in cultural competency.

Today, Eskelsen Garcia is one of the highest-ranking labor leaders and one of the most influential Hispanic educators in the country.

Students need role models, encouragement

Eskelsen Garcia often talks about how her personal experiences in the classroom and her interaction with students have led her to advocate for improvements in the pubic education system.

She often tells the story of Julio, an 8-year-old student she met while teaching at a shelter for homeless children in Salt Lake City’s suburbs. She describes Julio as being poor and as someone who was “very angry” at his situation. His anger led him to have bad behavior in the classroom and to be aggressive toward the other children at the shelter.

But all that changed when Eskelsen Garcia began asking Julio to help her learn Spanish. He eventually began opening up and helping Eskelsen Garcia in the classroom with the younger students.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia

Lily Eskelsen Garcia speaks during the NEA’s annual meeting in Denver. (NEA/Calvin Knight)

SEE ALSO: Work needed to bridge Latino higher-education gap

Then one day, she encouraged him to go to college and become a teacher himself. He laughed and replied, “I ain’t gonna be no teacher. When I go to college, I’m going to be a luchador. I’m going to be a wrestler with the World Wrestling Federation.”

“I laughed and then I got tears in my eyes, because I realized he said, ‘When I go to college,’” Eskelsen Garcia told VOXXI, pointing out that this is the mindset all students should have regardless of their background.

Julio is now in his early 20s. Eskelsen Garcia didn’t keep in contact with him and doesn’t know if he made it to college. All she knows, she said, is that she was able to get him to think about going to college.

Eskelsen Garcia said she likes to tell Julio’s story to highlight how the lack of encouragement to go to college coupled with not having enough role models are some of the most pressing issues Latino students are facing.

“We need to highlight those role models because there’s nothing more powerful to a child than to see someone who looks likes them, sounds like them, has a last name like them and to say, ‘Look at what that person did,’” she said.

Compared to the average student population, Latino students have lower probabilities of finishing high school, going on to college, graduating from college and earning as much money.

Now, as the president of the NEA, Eskelsen Garcia will have a powerful voice to advocate for those and other issues impacting Latino students.

SEE ALSO: Education All-Stars: Rolf Metral, from ELL student to innovator