Leadership Summit gave inspiration–and motivation–for the work ahead

The Windy City became the Fired-Up City for 2,000 educator-activists last weekend in Chicago. The city hosted our 2018 NEA Leadership Summit,  an amazing opportunity for educators across the nation to connect and inspire each other. We shared ideas for advocating for the opportunities our students deserve, and strengthening schools, campuses and communities. Fabulous guest speakers motivated and encouraged us to keep moving forward. Here’s what I said at the opening session on March 16. 


Something that happens to you in the next 2-1/2 days will change your life. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I don’t know when it’s going to happen. You might not even know that it happened until months from now. But I know this like I know how old I am: something that happens to you at this Summit will change your life.

And, by the way, I do know how old I am. I thought growing old would take a lot longer. But I notice that people my age are so much older than I am. And that’s helpful.

One of my retired friends – where are my NEA Retired Members??? Give it up for the giants whose shoulders we’re all standing on! – one of my retired friends said: I know it seems like you get grumpier as you get older. But you don’t. He said: You just get more like yourself.

Let me be honest with you. I’m here at this Leadership Summit because I need something to change my life. I’m an emotional person on any given day. And I’m starting to get a little too much like myself. I have been hit this year with more emotions: anger; grief; bitterness.

I want to know how to take all those raw emotions and not let someone control me with them. I want to be in charge of myself.

I am here to learn, and I might not even know I need to learn until it’s right in front of me – and something connects in my head.

This is a leadership Summit. We are not here to make you a leader. There is no one in this room who has not already demonstrated remarkable leadership. We did not pull your name out of a hat. You impressed someone. Someone told you that you should be in this room. So, you came. Some of you have no idea why you’re here or what was going to happen – but you showed up and that means you’re open to whatever might happen.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García speaks at the 2018 NEA Leadership Summit.

Competencies of Successful Leaders

There’s some research that threads through the experience that you’re about to have. The most successful leaders of our unions have certain competencies – certain skills – in common.

They are advocates to their souls – they see something that needs to be done; something that’s not fair; something that their members or students don’t have, and they’re going to fight for it.

They understand that we’ve got a stewardship role; that our members have entrusted us with resources to use to make things better and we have to have a business sense that respects that trust.

They know how to communicate; they know how to explain something complex in a way that commands attention – you listen to them; you learn from them.

They know how to bring people together to make fair decisions. We call it governance and leadership. They know how to work within the rules – and, when necessary, make new ones – so we can have an honest conversation, exchange ideas, and we can make decisions that make sense and move our mission forward.

They’re professionals. You trust that they know what they’re doing; they demand respect for their professional voice.

And they know how to organize. They do it in their sleep.

They can take all that’s in them: the advocacy; the professionalism; the communications skills… take all those competencies – and they organize people and resources and projects and communities so that something gets done that needed to get done.

Recognizing Your Talents

I know that as I went through these competencies, you recognized yourself. Maybe you recognized your own talents more in some than others, but it’s all in there. What we want to do is to make you more conscious of what you do as naturally as you breathe; and what you still need to practice – like a muscle that needs to be stretched.

So, start that stretching right now. Think of a time when you were called on to lead; or better yet, when you weren’t called on to lead, you just jumped in anyway. If you really unpack something that really happened to you, you’ll find examples of these leadership competencies in how you handled some situation.

Our folks pulling this Summit together asked me to think of a real situation like that that happened to me. And I thought of Mr. Rasmussen. Allen Rasmussen taught 4th grade next to me at Orchard Elementary in 1980-none of your business. I was not elected to anything. The only thing that qualified me as a leader was that I had a big mouth and a lot of opinions. I was actually over qualified.

He was the teacher I turned to when something wasn’t working with my 4th graders. He was a busy man inside and outside the classroom and the father of five children – all boys. His wife, Lara, did not work outside the home. She was a full-time, hard-working stay-at-home mom.

Their son, Danny, was 5. He just started kindergarten. He only had his 2-year old at home before he and his wife could celebrate that all the boys were all in school. One day he shows up at the staff break room and says: Danny has cancer. Leukemia.

We all had a good cry. And we all said what people say: Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. He said: Just pray. Pray hard.

Danny starts treatment – chemo’s pretty tough on a little body. Allen and Lara both want to be there to hold him, and Allen goes through the 5 days of family sick leave that we had in our contract pretty fast. It was so tough for him not to be able to be there like he wanted to.

Months go by. He’s missing some days at work. The district’s docking his pay. Finally, he says, the only thing that will save Danny is a bone marrow transplant. It’s an excruciatingly painful experience for both donor and recipient. The good news is they find the perfect match. The bad news is, it’s their two-year old. This is going to be tough on both of them. But Danny has to be strong enough to withstand the treatment. He’s on a waiting list for a hospital in California. They’re waiting for his blood count to get to a certain level and then they have to be on the next plane with their two little boys to start treatment.

Challenging an Unfair Policy

The district says Allen can’t go. He’s missed too many days. They’ve been docking his paycheck at the substitute teacher rate. They tell him that they will now begin docking him his full day’s pay – which is considerably more than the substitute’s pay which means they will actually be making money off his family’s misery.

Allen’s tired. He just wants to be with his little boy. And he’s my friend, and I’m going to do something about it.

I advocated for him by sermonizing with our colleagues. And some of my friends at 3rd lunch started talking about their 5 days of family sick leave. Some of them didn’t have spouses. They didn’t have kids. They never used them. And then somebody said in a very Business-competent way: The district budgets for our family sick leave. Too bad we can’t just donate our family sick leave to Allen. And I said: Why the heck not? (I did not say ‘heck’) We could organize that. And we all voted then and there that we would donate our sick leave (like we were elected to governance – which we absolutely were not; we had no authority to do that, but luckily, we did not care).

And I typed (on a machine called a typewriter – fixing my mistakes with “white out”) a petition that you could sign if you wanted to volunteer your family sick days to Allen. And I went class to class and communicated with my colleagues why they should sign. And 36 out of 38 people at Orchard Elementary signed that petition and I called the Superintendent’s office and asked for an appointment to present him with that petition and make the case that as professionals, we needed to be able to care for our children – our students and our own sons and daughters. And I got an appointment for the following week.

And Danny died that weekend.

Seeing with New Eyes

When I was asked about something I had experienced that showed leadership, I thought of Mr. Rasmussen and Danny and I have really mixed feelings about my leadership in that story. I just kind of went off on my own and wrote that petition and stared down my colleagues and said: I need you to sign this.

And after Danny died, I stopped what I was doing. I was worried about my friend, Allen, but he wasn’t going to be the last one in our district with a sick child. It never occurred to me to pick up the phone and talk to my Granite Education Association and see what we could do to change a policy that left a family so helpless who just wanted to be with a dying child.

I have a big mouth and a lot of opinions. But I had a lot to learn. I was out there by myself, fired up and ready to do something… I think I would have done things a lot differently to help Allen and his family today. I would have included more people and asked more questions and not gone off on my own with my idea.

I might have picked up the phone and advocated with the Superintendent FIRST instead of thinking about him last. Maybe we could have solved this with a phone call. It wouldn’t have saved Danny, but it would have relieved the pain and worry that the family was going through.

Anyway. I don’t think I did anything wrong, and I know Allen appreciated his colleagues sticking up for him until the day he died – a year ago. He was an amazing leader in his own right. He became my local president. He made me bargaining chair and encouraged me to run for state president and later for the NEA Executive Committee.

This quiet gentle elementary teacher – this professional – this Dad who loved his boys – lived a life of purpose and pride and tenderness and determination. I’m not sure there is anything more tragic than losing a child, but he drew strength from the love that came to him. He used his leadership to lift up others. To lift me up. He used it to lift up our professionalism and respect and, yes, respect for our families as well. He convinced the district to improve family sick leave. And it wasn’t for him. It was for all the rest of us.

The leadership of those around me has always inspired me. I learn something from you every day. And you’ll learn something from the people sitting with you here. You’ll see something with new eyes; something that inspires you in this room; something you experience here that opens you up – will change your life.

That is the power and promise of the leadership competency framework and why we put together this experience that we call the Summit and the first day is centered on demonstrating to you how we at the NEA are living out our strategic framework by investing in opportunities to grow and transform the union. That’s what our first day is all about.

You are here to take your leadership to the next level. Thank you for your fearlessness in not being afraid to learn to fly. Gracias Hermanos y Hermanas.


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