Skip to Content

Remarks As Prepared Of Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President For The National Press Club

WASHINGTON - September 08, 2017 -

Que honor estar aquí con ustedes – it’s an honor to be here at the National Press Club. My name is Lily Eskelsen Garcia, I am a sixth-grade teacher and the President of the national Education Association. I’m proud to sit up here with my friends and colleagues, Rocio Inclan, Director of NEA’s Center for Social Justice; Betty Weller, President of the Maryland State Education Association, and AXEL HERRERA RAMOS, an exceptional student at Duke University, born in Honduras who came to America with his family as a child. He is a proud DACAmented Dreamer and an activist and I ask that you give him a special welcome to let him know he has many friends in this room.

I’m trying to concentrate on what I want to say to you today while I’m also thinking of my colleagues and their students and communities dealing with Harvey and Irma and some of them told me they’d be watching this if the lights were still on – so I want to give them our love and send them thoughts and prayers for their safety.

I was looking at pictures of school kids that were being posted on Facebook by our NEA staff sending their own kids off to school this week. It was beautiful. Smiles and new tennis shoes and backpacks.

This time of year is like Christmas for us educators. Our kids are coming! It’s like Santa’s coming! For weeks I’d have been putting bulletin boards up and arranging desks and practicing our class theme song: Don’t Stick Your Finger Up Your Nose, ‘Cause Your Nose Knows It’s Not The Place It Goes.

I’m here at the National Press Club. Which is fitting, because I started every day with current events. Every morning, my kids could get extra credit if they reported on an article they read in this thing called a “newspaper”. Remember “news”? Remember “paper”? Good times.

They had to summarize it; explain what was happening; give an opinion. Then the class got to ask them questions. In my class you got a jellybean for a good answer. You got two jellybeans for a good question – and all my kids had cavities. (I want that measurement on my evaluation.)

But my kids knew what question would get them 3 jellybeans.

Soon or later, someone would ask: So, are we going to do something about it? Ah!

There’s a blood shortage. Should we put on a blood drive? Yes!

A senator thinks we should all wear uniforms. Should we write and give him our opinion? Yes!

Cars are parked illegally in the handicapped parking spots. Should we throw rotten eggs at them? No. Sometimes the answer was no. But mostly, the answer was yes. Yes. We are going to do something about it.

I think it’s only fair to tell you that I am a fabulous teacher. I’m totally full of myself because I know in my bones how important my work is. I represent 3 million educators – teachers and adjunct faculty and bus drivers and para-professionals and counselors and librarians – who wake up every morning knowing how important our work is. We know it’s so important that we’re supposed to do something about making sure that our students – preschool to graduate school - have everything they need to make their lives everything they should be.

Our work is the future of… everything.

And our work happens inside and outside the classroom. Thousands of people in cities across the country took to the streets this week to protest this administration’s cruel, senseless ending of DACA. Many of them were our members supporting their students. And those same educators still showed up for school giving their kids hugs and homework. We have to be both: activists and educators.

And in this speech today, I have to be both. I have to talk about policy and politics but I have to somehow leave you with the importance of our work and what’s at stake for our students.

We are facing a reckless and irresponsible administration that creates chaos and confusion – which is bad – but he also creates fear in children, which is unforgiveable. For the first time in our country’s history, teachers had to comfort crying children because they were afraid of their president.

There were current events about Muslim bans and educators had to assure frightened children like little girls who wore hijabs or little boys named Mohammad that the president couldn’t hurt them.

There were current events about border walls to keep out Bad Hombres, and educators had to assure frightened children with names like Alfredo and Juanita that the president couldn’t hurt them.

There were current events about humiliating transgender students who just had to go to the bathroom and removing the protections against their discrimination, and educators had to assure frightened boys who were shaped like girls; and girls who were shaped like boys that the president couldn’t hurt them.

And this week there was a current event that this president was stripping away the protection for our Dreamers. He cruelly says he’s sure Congress will take care of it. Donald Trump is risking 800,000 lives. He risks nothing. These undocumented young people were brought here as children; they graduated from school and had no criminal record – young people who did not make the adult decision to come. They applied for and were granted protected status because of their special circumstances. DACA allowed them to go work; go to college or serve their country in the military.

DACA is an unqualified success on every level. It’s humane. It’s just. It’s pumping billions into our economy to have these educated, hardworking, enthusiastic young people paying taxes and buying homes and working and studying and starting businesses.

We want to comfort them. But it’s so hard to tell them that this president can’t hurt them. They know the truth. But we’ve taught them well. And they know and we know the right question to ask: What are we going to do about it?

If this were business as usual, we would have turned to the Department of Education for help. Business as usual would have had me think about how I might reach out to Betsy DeVos, a woman who had zero experience in public schools except to use the power of her billions to take public school dollars away from public school students to fund privatized schools. These are not usual times. She asked me to meet. I asked her to take a standardized test. I made it easy.

  1. Will you hold privately managed voucher and charter schools to the same standards of financial transparency as public schools? 
  2. Will you privatize federal programs like Special Education or Title One? 
  3. Will you protect all students from discrimination – our students of color, our English Language Learners; our immigrant students; our Muslim students; our girls; our LGBT students?

I never got a written answer. But her actions scream. On her watch, protections for transgender students against discrimination were rescinded. This week, she supported rolling back Title IX protections for victims of sexual assault on college campuses. She halted loan forgiveness protection for students who were defrauded by the growing scam for-profit higher education industry. The Trump/DeVos budget proposes $10 billion in cuts from Special Education; Title One; after-school programs, and college work study.

The only thing that was added? A new multi-million-dollar federal voucher program. Instead of investing in improving public schools where 90% of our kids go, she’s made a career diverting scarce resources to fund private schools.

NEA and our 3 million members will fight this agenda to take resources away from our students.

This isn’t partisan for me. I’m from Utah. I have worked and played well with Democratic and Republican politicians all my life. I know how to find common ground on education regardless of party, because in my experience, most people are good people - they want something good for kids and their families and their communities. We can argue over what’s a good idea or a bad idea, but time and time again, I’ve seen people come together when you can show them a plan that makes sense. This administration is different. I do not trust them.

And yet, hope fills me in these dark days. I’ve talked with people who tell me there’s no hope for Congress to meet this artificial deadline Donald Trump set to pass a law protecting our Dreamers. They say, “When’s the last time Congress came together to do a good thing?”

Actually, it was December 10, 2015.

I watched Democrats and Republicans who weren’t going to agree on the time of day, sit in the same room and undo the toxic mandates of No Child Left Untested. I watched President Obama sign away that old law that judged our kids by a standardized test and replace it with the Every Student Succeeds Act - ESSA – a law that gives us an opportunity to deeply measure whether students have access and opportunity. States and local districts are, even as we speak, completing their ESSA plans – plans that by law have to be developed WITH educators so that they make sense and so that we can use the information to guide our instruction and advocate for what works with real students. Because having good information is part of our secret plan.

So, we want everybody to know what our secret plan is: We plan to make every public school as good as our best public schools.

Here’s what I seldom read in current events: Some of the best schools on the planet are among American public schools. Think of the best public school in your state – usually they’re in pretty nice neighborhoods. These are places where parents are selling a kidney so they can buy a house next to one of these schools. Kids are winning scholarships to good colleges; parents are excited and involved; kids love their theater classes and technology and sports.

Those schools aren’t succeeding because of test prep and cut-throat competition with private charters. They’re good because they have trained, career teachers and support staff who have collaborative authority to make instructional decisions for their students; they have technology that works and books in the library; they have after-school programs and field trips and choir and a debate team.

Our plan is to use our best public schools as living models. No more experimenting on our most disadvantaged kids. What works with our most advantaged kids is exactly what will work with every kid: Equal access. Equal opportunity. Equal respect.

The National Education Association and our affiliates are all up into ESSA. The letter of the law: That educators have an important voice in developing state plans; that dashboards include multiple service and support indicators and not just standardized tests. We will be calling for opportunity audits of schools across the nation. We will be organizing at the local level to hold leaders accountable to the promises they have made students, parents and educators. But that’s not enough.

Our plan is about the spirit of the law. Every Student Succeeds At My School because I’ve got a respected voice; I’ve got a great idea; because I’m bringing people together; because nobody is going to stop my school from doing what we can do without anyone’s permission.

I was the Utah Teacher of the Year, and it wasn’t because of my kids’ test scores. It was because I made my kids work their little butts off and love it. My colleagues and I put the boring basal reading textbook on the shelf without asking anybody if we could. We bought with our own money and our Troll Book Bonus points classroom sets of Old Yeller and Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. My kids got mad at me every day when reading was over because I got them to LOVE reading. And when you love reading, you become a good reader.

So, yes, we’ve got to worry about funding and policies and getting what we need to do our jobs. And yes, we need to take whatever they gave us and create something amazing; something unique that works for our students.

The Texas State Teachers’ Association took me to San Antonio where they have Early College High Schools connected directly to community colleges so kids graduate high school with associate degrees. They found a way to debt free college for kids whose parents never dreamed they’d go to college.

In Las Cruces educators in our local there surveyed their kids to find out what they were thinking. What the kids were thinking was: I’m hungry. They decided they would become the Lynn Community Middle School. They teamed up with the food bank, with health care, with after-school programs in arts and athletics and leadership clubs. The local Chamber of Commerce sponsored the ribbon cutting ceremony. Attendance is up. Homework completion is up. Parents are showing up.

In Minnesota, their community schools have all their teachers trained to deliver an elite International Baccalaureate program. In New Jersey’s most challenged communities, teachers are being trained in AP physics instruction through a program sponsored by the New Jersey Education Association. In Tennessee they’re using Social Emotional Learning as a way to support students who have to learn to deal with trauma and violence in their little lives.

Everywhere in this country, educators and their unions and parents and advocates and community leaders are embracing their public schools in powerful, human, creative, loving, transformative ways. Big ways and small ways and ways that don’t always make the headlines.

One year my kids read a news article about the Hartviksen School that serves students with severe, multiple disabilities. And a hand went up, and Jason wanted 3 jelly beans, and said, “Can we be their pen pals?” So, I visited their teacher. She explained that her students couldn’t write their names; some of them couldn’t hold a pencil. But she said, “But some of them can draw a picture. And we have high school volunteers who help in the afternoons.” We made it happen.

We wrote them. And they wrote back:

I am Adam. I like snow. Write me back.

I am Karen. I am beautiful. Everybody loves me.

My kids loved their pen pals and they told me they wanted to have a party with them. And if there’s anything that Utah’s famous for it’s that we know how to party! (work with me, people). But I was worried. Nothing in these letters, written by the high school volunteers, could have prepared my kids for the reality of their special pen pals. Most wore diapers. Some couldn’t speak. Most of them wore harnesses to sit up straight in their wheelchairs.

But there was no way we were not going to have a party.

We decorated the multi-purpose room with balloons and white sugar cookies and red KoolAid (because that’s what we have at every Utah party.) And then their bus pulled up and we stood on the sidewalk waiting for them.

I warned my kids that hugging them might scare them. Best to just shake hands. One by one our pen pals were lowered down in wheelchairs off the ramp on the bus. They had on big name tags. One said “Adam” and Jason screams, “That one’s mine!” and runs over and throws his arms around him. And Adam squeezes him back and then everybody’s shaking hands and hugging and giggling. And we wheeled into the party, and we danced the Hokey Pokey and we were bad.

I wanted to take a group picture, and I got everybody rounded up and I’m about to snap and one of the little guys wanders off. And we get him back with the group and I’m about to snap, and a little girl turns her back to hug the kid behind her. And I get everyone looking into the camera and I’m about to snap and Jason says, “Wait!” and runs over to the cookie table and grabs a napkin and says to his pen pal, “Come on, Buddy. You gotta look good for the picture” and he wipes the drool off his pen pal’s chin.

For the life of me, I cannot remember Jason’s ranking on the Stanford Achievement Test that year. But I will never forget that he wiped the drool off his pen pal’s chin.

There are very few things that frighten me. But I’ve been frightened by attacks on the crown jewels of our democracy: attacks on a free press; the security of our elections. And I’ve been frightened that people who don’t know Jason; who don’t know my kids; who don’t understand what it is to teach and what it is to learn – I’m frightened that these people who don’t know what they’re talking about will destroy the brightest jewel in the crown; they will destroy public education.

Our plan is to do something about that. Our plan is to fight for a public school that is worthy of our children. And in the very same breath, our plan is to dedicate ourselves as professionals to being worthy of them.

There’s no reason to think that joy is on the agenda of this administration.

But we are educators, and finding joy is our vocation. Our plan is to inspire and include and teach our students what it means to be critical, questioning citizens of their beautiful world; to be creative problem solvers; to be compassionate human beings.

And we know what our reward will be. It is a perk of our profession that we so often become better people because of the lessons we learn from our students. They teach us how to teach them: To serve the whole and happy child, and the reward is a whole and happy adult. And that is very important work. It is the future of everything.

And we don’t intend to let anything stop us.