Political action is not only proper for teachers but necessary, said Lily Eskelsen, president of the Utah Education Association.
"It's a valid obsession. It means our survival," Eskelsen told delegates to the UEA Fall House of Delegates meeting in Payson High School Saturday.The UEA's involvement in politics helps ensure the accountability of legislators who must fund and direct education, she said.
She warned that failure of local tax levies to pass in Tuesday's election will reduce the number of new teachers available to help trim class sizes.
Eskelsen said the UEA has developed positive relationships with the Utah Legislature and is now working "on the inside" to improve the lot of education and educators.
Significant raises this year resulted from improved relationships, she said, but teaching remains a profession in which one can earn a good "supplemental income. It is not yet a particularly good salary for a breadwinner with a family."
She urged unity in the UEA ranks as a necessity to continued effort to influence the Legislature positively.
Many legislators view overcrowded classes as "an insurmountable problem. They have surrendered. It is our task to get them back into the battle," she said.
Other education critics don't understand changes that have occurred and the additional burdens that have been placed on teachers. She cited the instance of one of her own students who clamored for attention and nearly didn't get it as she was pressed down with responsibilities. When she was finally able to spend a minute with him, his problem was enormous - he was using drugs supplied to him by a brother. Knowing the problem, she was able to intercede on his behalf and short-circuit his venture into drug abuse, she said.
Technology is a potential important ally for teachers, not a replacement for them. "Machines do not hold discussions. They do not reward creative answers. They do not give hugs or laugh at jokes or dry tears," Eskelsen said.
Talk of a longer school year gets an excited response from most teachers, she said, but the potential for use of substitutes to decrease the costs of the extended time is troublesome. Utahns must be willing to pay for what they want.
UEA Director Lowell Baum also spoke, urging teachers to work against the movement to remove sales taxes from food and other erosions of the state's tax base.
"No five-year strategic plan for improving Utah schools can work with tax cut schemes built on phantom surpluses and $90 million tax cuts," he said.
Baum said the UEA should become a champion of children - those who need medical care and don't get it; those who go hungry; those who are abused; those who quit school to go into dead-end jobs; those who become parents prematurely; those whose despair leads them to suicide.
"I don't have to remind you that in many cases, you're the only people in the world these kids can turn to," he said.
While education reformers are calling for new paradigms, there are some that have served well and should be retained, Baum said, including "helping young people above and beyond the call of teaching duties."
The delegates considered several resolutions as well as hearing leaders during the general session.