SANDY — Throughout her career as an educator and later, a leader in the nation's largest teacher's union, Lily Eskelsen Garcia said she has prided herself for being able find common ground with people of differing political perspectives.
"This is different," said Eskelsen Garcia, referring to the Trump administration.
"I've never seen anything like it. I do not trust them. I believe they are corrupt. I will not have a photo-op with someone who's corrupt. I believe they are hurting our future," said Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, during the opening address of the Utah Education Association convention Thursday at the South Towne Expo Center.
Eskelsen Garcia, a former Utah teacher of the year and Utah Education Association president, said her sixth-grade students taught her the importance of taking action once they learned about community and societal problems.
She gave her students extra credit for current events reports drawn from news reports. "Remember newspapers?" she said.
As her students learned more about was happening in the world around them, they would inevitably ask, "Should we do something about that?"
In the face of the Trump administration eliminating the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos making deep cuts in the civil rights division of the Department of Education and an emerging federal push for private school vouchers, Eskelsen Garcia urged teachers to stay informed and ask themselves, "What am I going to do about it?" she said.
The vouchers push is particularly troubling, she said, because public schools need all the resources they receive, and several states — including Utah — have defeated school vouchers at the ballot box.
In 2007, the Utah Legislature passed a statewide school voucher program. Opponents led by the UEA, Utah PTA and others gathered enough signatures to place a referendum on the ballot. Sixty-two percent of Utahns voted to repeal the legislation.
"It was not partisan. It was not Republican voters and it was not Democrat voters. It was a community that said, 'We love our public schools,'" Eskelsen Garcia said.
"Here we are again with a federal push that would push vouchers on communities that have already said, 'No,'" she said.
Eskelsen Garcia recalled watching and guiding her students as they learned to advocate and solve problems. When they learned about Granite School District's Hartvigsen School, a special education facility, they wanted to become pen pals with students and eventually throw them a party.
Toward the end of the party at the neighborhood school, Eskelsen Garcia asked the students to pose for a photograph. One of her sixth-grade boys interrupted the moment to grab a napkin off the refreshment table to wipe drool from his pen pal's face saying something like, 'You want to look your best for the photograph," she said.1 comment on this story
Eskelsen Garcia said she does not remember the boy's achievement test scores but she will never forget his kindness.
The nation's youth, more than ever, depend on public school educators who are "passionate and compassionate" and will advocate for them at school and in the larger community.
Teachers should "tremble" with the importance of their roles of shaping young live and the future of the nation, she said.
"Our work, more and more, happens inside our classrooms, inside those school buildings but also outside of those schools. Our students need us to be both," she said.