Lily Eskelsen Garcia has a history that reads like a made-for-TV movie:
She began her education career making salads in a school cafeteria and was nudged toward college by a kindergarten teacher who liked the way the 18-year-old related to young children. She paid her college bills with folk-singing gigs, graduated magna cum laude and nine years later, in 1989, was Utah's Teacher of the Year.
Now Eskelsen Garcia, 59, is about to take the reins of the country's largest labor union. She hopes her story, and her moxie, will inspire millions of teachers and parents to push back against high-stakes testing, regimented lessons and what she calls "stupid rules."
"I was a fabulous teacher," Eskelsen Garcia told me Wednesday, on a back-to-school swing through California as the incoming leader of the National Education Assn. "I did everything the opposite of what corporate school reformers would say teachers are supposed to do."
She shelved the dreary books her district prescribed and bought "Old Yeller" for her fifth-graders instead. "I absolutely refused to be bored," she said. "If I was bored by a lesson, I knew the kids would be bored too." She read aloud to them with dramatic flourish, acting out scenes.
Every morning included a lesson on current events. Students presented and led discussions. Classmates got one jellybean from the teacher for a good answer — and two for a good question.
"That was when they left us alone, when you didn't have a politician telling you 'Are you all on page 53?'" she said. "I was just so excited to open those kids' minds....hear them say, 'Hey, I didn't know that.' "
She entered the profession before "No Child Left Behind." She was free to be a cheerleader for any project her students thought up, a teacher who'd put her arm around a noisy sixth-grader and whisper to quiet him down.
Her strategy was simple: Just love teaching and find ways to help students love school.
I imagine that's simpler in suburban Salt Lake City than it would be in Los Angeles. The new NEA head didn't have to serve breakfast in her classroom, navigate language and cultural barriers, keep school police on speed dial or partner with social workers.
But Eskelsen Garcia said those aren't the issues that derail learning and drive good teachers from the classroom.
She hears the same refrain from teachers in every state: "They are nervous about what it takes to teach this child, in an era when nothing seems to matter beyond what can be bubbled in on a test."
Toxic tests has become her mantra and rallying cry. It's not the exams themselves that trouble her. It's the high-stakes consequences — the prizes and punishments in districts where teachers' jobs depend on students' test scores.
"I talk to a lot of young teachers and hear the same love for their kids that I felt in the classroom," she said. "But we are going to lose almost 50% of those teachers in five years."
They dream of science fairs and Shakespeare festivals and time spent outdoors turning over rocks and studying soil. "But they're being told 'It's not on the test, so we can't do that.' "
Eskelsen Garcia tells them to push back: Engage parents and work with colleagues to challenge edicts that stifle creativity. But it's scary to be pegged as a rabble-rouser when you haven't yet earned tenure and could be fired for complaining.
Tenure is the boogeyman in education reform. It's been billed as a way to protect bad teachers. Eskelsen Garcia intends to change that perception.
Unlike her predecessors, she thinks tenure ought to be up for discussion. "Tenure is not about a job-for-life, it's about due process," she said. Talking about it can help the public understand how it works. "The union has to be transparent. You can't sweet-talk people, you can't bully people, you have to make a case. And we can make a case for tenure."
What keeps poor teachers in the classroom is not tenure, she said, but the superficial evaluation process that most school systems employ.
She always scored at the top of her district's five-point scale: "I had the most amazing bulletin boards you have ever seen. And I never sent a kid to the office." That shouldn't be enough to earn a teacher an "A."
Eskelsen Garcia knows that bar is too low. The best evaluation systems rely on peer reviews, she said. That tends to scare unions because it requires teachers to judge each other. But a peer review system has been working well for more than a decade in Maryland's Montgomery County.
"You have peer teams supporting and teaching each other, in a compassionate way," Eskelsen Garcia said. "A [struggling] teacher should be counseled... If they can't improve, you show them a respectful way out."
She strikes me as someone who's smart enough to read the writing on the wall: Pressure from parents, politicians, charter schools and corporate reformers is bound to force change. This may be one way for teachers to take the reins.
Unions are beginning to realize they need to build alliances to succeed. That's what brought Eskelsen Garcia to Los Angeles this week, where the local teachers' union, United Teachers Los Angeles, is trying to forge a "social justice" agenda for schools, with help from local civil rights leaders and community groups.
Eskelsen Garcia wants teachers seen as leaders, not impediments to reform. "What we know now is parents are saying 'Lead us out of this. We want something different for our children.' We have to engage them in what's really going on.
"Because it doesn't matter how big and bad we are if we don't have parents with us and the public doesn't believe that public schools can work."