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Video reveals mystery man who runs largest teachers union

Our On Education page has a new video up, exposing the teachers union chief nobody knows, Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association.

I am exaggerating, of course. The NEA has 3.2 million members. I expect almost all of them recognize Van Roekel's name, and maybe even his face. But in recent years the head of the smaller teachers union, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, has been getting more press coverage. Her union represents teachers in mostly urban school systems, where the problems are greater and thus more newsworthy than the NEA's mostly suburban base. Weingarten was also prominent, as the villain, in the much-discussed new documentary on failing schools "Waiting For 'Superman.'"

I had never met Van Roekel before our interview for the video. He turned out to be an engaging, friendly, unruffled former math teacher. The interview reveals his desire to focus his union efforts on raising achievement for low-income children, what he thinks about the trashing that unions and Weingarten got in the documentary, and other intriguing thoughts.

By Jay Mathews  | October 19, 2010; 3:26 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  American Federation of Teachers, Dennis Van Roekel, National Education Association, Randi Weingarten  
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I am proud to be a member of the NEA. Although it is hard to get any vested interest to take a stand against the current wave of "reform" corruption that is sweeping public education, Van Roekel has shown a personal integrity and backbone that I appreciate.

As a history student, Jay, you might be familiar with the story of the NEA's role in the fall of the Kelly-Nash political machine in Chicago, after WW II.

I happened on this reference while I was researching the emergence of CTU president Karen Lewis in Chicago, leading a member uprising against the corrupt present-day AFT leadership there:

That's some link. Good luck with it, fellow history buffs.

It reminds us that history does move on, but the forward movement doesn't leave history behind. Our social-activist union heritage is rich, complicated, and important to us, especially in these complicated times.

"It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong."

"In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong."

Chorus: Solidarity, Forever

Posted by: mport84 | October 19, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Interesting interview. I liked how he insisted on passion and professional skills for teachers. I also agree with him that it is our collective responsibility as a nation to educate everyone.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 19, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

Has the NEA's Priority School Campaign developed strategies yet to lift a student up if they fall down, or is this a work in progress?

Will DVR and the NEA really be able to claim that they had a positive impact on a significant number of those shining faces from the class of 2020 or is this just more rhetoric from the educational establishment?

How does the NEA plan to change from its history of being a primary obstructionists in the field of education reform to being a catalyst?

The video showcased VR's rhetoric was was sorely lacking specifics.

Posted by: phoss1 | October 20, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse

Jay, I can't help but notice that The Washington Post doesn't seem to recognize your name either. There's a promo on the site for your column, written by a guy named Jay MaTthews.

Posted by: napster | October 20, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

What an inspiration! As a parent with children who attend public schools, I value teachers who care about content coupled with compassion and sensitivity. Van Roekel's common sense attitude, devoid of the vituperation and self-important pronouncements larded with b-school terms like "human capital" of Michelle Rhee, was so refreshing.

We need people talking about positive incremental changes to improve local schools in every neighborhood, rather than sweeping, ideologically-driven approaches forced on the public by the new reformers and their data-driven, test-oriented approach to the very human endeavor of teaching a younger generation what we know and what we're finding out.

In every school you have actual children who will only be in second grade or seventh grade or eleventh grade this year. The current batch of reformers, experimenting with human subjects, doesn't seem to care how many children they sacrifice. To see Rhee's video after Van Roekel's really says it all. She's so dour and negative and talks in this plodding way. It's no wonder she was unable to communicate with the constituencies - parents, teachers, students, politicians -- that are vital to any reform effort.

By the way, it's a canard that principals can't fire teachers. Even here in New York, a tenured teacher can be fired after two successive unsatisfactory ratings. Yes, there's a process, but it's far from impossible. Moreover, many teachers leave the profession or are fired before they come up for tenure. One would hope that if you're in the job for three years, you have shown that you can handle it and, therefore, the majority would receive tenure. IN the private sector if you're not cutting the mustard after three years (well, long before that) you're fired. Principals have the power and should be held accountable when they don't exercise that power. As a parent representative on a school leadership team, I have seen a principal settling for weak teachers who will kow-tow rather than inspiring and demanding the best from her staff.

Please shift your focus to administration on all levels. Show me a lousy teacher and I'll show you a poor administrator.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | October 21, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

I have also noticed weak teachers who flatters the principals. They get a lot of perks even though they are not really doing their jobs. I think it must be difficult for principals and they sucumb to flattery. But you would think they would offer them a course on these sorts of personnel issues.

Sometimes principals think that if teachers show up to meetings on time and agree to all new programs that they are superior teachers.

Sometimes this is true, but often the real teachers are busy teaching and are very involved in the students' learning. They want to use their time to plan for classes and grade papers quickly so that the students find out how they did. (The students deserve to get feedback quickly on their work-they studied or spent time on it).

I would really like to hear about how administrators are trained. I am especially interested in how they evaluate teacher effectiveness. I also wonder if they ever stress to principals that different subjects require different skills and teaching styles.

I would like to hear about good schools that have stable teaching staffs. I would like to read what teachers think of their principals and what principals think about their teachers and schools.

My observation is that a school principal is partly a teacher, but mainly a manager of budget, parental communications etc. Are there principals who do both the business aspects and the education aspects well? How were they trained?

Posted by: celestun100 | October 21, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

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