Lily Eskelsen, an elementary teacher from Utah, is Vice President of the National Education Association. She is one of the highest-ranking labor leaders in the country and one of its most influential Hispanic educators.
She began her career in education as a lunch worker in a school cafeteria. She became a kindergarten aide, and was encouraged by the teacher to think about going to college and becoming a teacher herself. So she did. She worked her way through the University of Utah on scholarships, student loans, and as a starving folk singer, graduating magna cum laude in elementary education and later earning her master's degree in instructional technology.
After teaching for only nine years, she was named Utah Teacher of the Year in 1989, and she used that title as a platform to speak out against the dismal funding of Utah schools. One of her colleagues suggested she run for president of the Utah Education Association. So she did. In 1990, she was elected UEA President, her first elected position in the Association. She has since served in key leadership posts, including the NEA Executive Committee and NEA Secretary-Treasurer.
Lily has also served as President of the Utah State Retirement System; as President of the Children at Risk Foundation; as a member of the Utah LaRaza Education Committee; and as a member of the White House Strategy Session on Improving Hispanic Education. She built alliances with parents, business, and civil rights organizations and with advocates for the disabled and poor. She worked with coalitions to engage the public in the political process, and she was encouraged by friends to seek political office herself. So she did. In 1998, she was the first Hispanic to be chosen as her party's nominee for U.S. Congress in Utah, raising close to $1 million and taking 45 percent of the vote against the incumbent.
Lily authored a humor column on parenting that ran in 22 local newspapers. Her education advice for parents has been published in Time, Working Mother, and Woman's World, and she's been featured on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes and CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight. She has been the invited keynote speaker for hundreds of education events in virtually every state and was highlighted by Education World in their "Best Conference Speakers" edition.
For 20 years, she worked with students from kindergarten to sixth grade in the middle-class suburbs of Salt Lake and in the county's one-room shelter school. She has taught children labeled "gifted" and children labeled "homeless." She remembers the year she had 39 fifth-graders and the year she had 12 special education students in a class of 35. She believes that no matter how students arrive, no matter their learning conditions, and no matter what political tests or labels or punishments they face, educators have the sacred duty to be professionals and to care for the whole child. And she believes that professionalism carries the responsibility to take action, individually and collectively, to fight to make the promise of public education -- to prepare every student to succeed -- a reality.