Idaho Education Association President Sherri Wood will be retiring this summer after 34 years in education, most of them as a teacher in Caldwell. Here are remarks that she made to the 119th IEA Delegate Assembly on April 16, 2011.
“A hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”
Good morning. It doesn’t seem possible that I am standing before you today about to wrap up my sixth and final Delegate Assembly as your President. Wow! What happened to six years? Actually, what happened to 34 years?
Yes, I started teaching 34 years ago and I have been a member of this phenomenal organization all these years. I certainly didn’t go into teaching to become a union activist; I became a union activist in order to become a better teacher, to advance my profession, to give educators a voice in making their schools more effective places for teaching and learning. I joined because the teachers I respected at Van Buren Elementary in Caldwell told me to join and I trusted them. I also joined because Louise Harbison was my mentor and I knew I did not want to get on her bad side. And I guess I am consistent because these are the reasons I ran for this office. I believe in my soul that the IEA—all of us together, we are the only organization that takes on the role of lifting up the teaching profession. We are the only organization that truly wants to revitalize public education for the children in Idaho, and we are the only organization that really believes that every child should have the opportunity to attend a public school no matter where they live or the income of their parents.
As I was thinking about what I would say in this farewell speech, the students I taught (or, better yet, the students who taught me) at Van Buren School came to my mind. I looked around my office and I saw notes on my bulletin board. One note reads, “Ms. Wood, I would like you for a mom,” this from a child living in foster care. Another one reads, “Ms. Wood is my best friend. I know she will always talk to me and make me feel better,” this from a child whose mother passed away.
I was at a meeting not long ago and a young woman came up to me and she said, “You were my first grade teacher.” It took me awhile, but I finally figured out who she was. She was surprised I remembered her, because you see she was in my first first-grade class 34 years ago, that means she is 40 years old. It was great to talk to her and see that she is now a confident young business woman. She talked about all the things she remembered from my class and how I taught her to read. I always worried about her because she was so painfully shy and reserved. You just never know the influence you will have.
When I see my students, when I receive graduation announcements from them, or when I read the notes on my bulletin board it makes me so proud, because there is one thing I know for sure: I have made a difference in the life of a child and I know you have, too! My students cause me to think of one of my favorite passages from Pat Conroy’s book, The Prince of Tides. Many of you will remember that the book’s main character, Tom, is an English teacher and a high school football coach. Toward the end of the book, his sister argues with him, and she accuses him of being a failure. She says, “You sold yourself short. You could have been more than a teacher and coach.” To which Tom replies: “Listen to me! There is no word in the English Language I revere more than teacher; NONE. My heart sings when a kid refers to me as his teacher and it always has. I’ve honored myself and the entire family by becoming one.”
Over the past six years as I did the work of IEA President, I always had my Van Buren children in the back of my mind. I told policy makers about these children who live in poverty, the children who have no voice, and many times I felt like they did not want to hear about them. I felt like they didn’t believe me or maybe they just didn’t care. But I kept talking and you should, too! Public schools and public school educators take all children and we take them from where they are to a better place. And to do this work, there are powerful interactions going on constantly. We are a powerful group of people engaged in a conspiracy around our deepest professional beliefs, and that is public education. We coalesce with one another around our core values—and the core values of the IEA, written by IEA members, are:
Public Education—preserving the foundation of our democracy
Justice—upholding fair treatment for all
Unity—standing together for a common cause
Integrity—stating what we believe and living up to it
These are the values that our Association lives by and holds dear. When I talk to legislators, policy makers, educators, or parents, I remind myself of these values: public education, justice, unity and integrity. The IEA has values just like each of our families do. Actually, we are family. This union is about people, it’s about making connections, it’s about joining together for a common cause. Some say we are a special interest and they are right: Our special interest is children, the children who attend our public schools. This union is about speaking with one voice for the greater good. We can no longer be passive about who we are as educators and union members. We must be proud and honored about our profession and our union.
So when you are standing in line at the grocery store, attending a sporting event or maybe you are at church and you hear someone say negative things about public schools, teachers, or the IEA, speak up. Tell them your story. Tell them your truth, tell them your experience, and invite them to visit your classroom. You see, I love my profession and love this Association and I have no problem telling anyone who will listen how proud I am to be a teacher and a union member. Each and every one of us must be able to tell the world – especially potential members and policy makers – that we are proud to be members of the IEA and our reasons for joining must be bigger and better than the liability insurance. The next time you go to an Association meeting, invite one other member to go with you. Tell them they have talents that are needed in the Association. Tell them there are opportunities for them in the Association. Tell them the more they put into the Association, the more they will get out of it.
Even in these very turbulent times, we have so much to be proud off. We can and must be proud of the humanitarian things we do. Over my many years of involvement in this Association, I have watched IEA members give their time and money for someone else’s child. We have the Children’s Fund, where you somehow find money – even in this economic downturn – to help the children of Idaho. You pass the hat at staff meetings and at Association meetings to help a family or staff member in need. This union is a group of deeply committed, compassionate people. I have attended the National Education Association Representative Assembly, where 9,000 delegates raised money to pay off a house for a member/leader that was dying. We also dug deep into our own pockets to help a student, Ryan White, as he battled AIDS. NEA was the first organization on the ground to help when Hurricane Katrina hit.
These are powerful stories that illustrate how we are truly a very large family. We rally together every day when we walk into our schools. Every single day we rally together in extraordinary acts of caring and kindness and leadership, and yet at the end of the day we shrug it of and say, “It’s no big deal, it is just what we do.”I want you to know it is a big deal, and you all need to be proud of what you do!! You know sometimes I hear teachers or support staff say, “I’m just a teacher or I’m just a bus driver or classroom assistant.” I want you to stop that. Believe in what you do. No one is “just” a bus driver, cook, or teacher. You are powerful people. I have been so fortunate over the last six years to visit many schools from Weippe to Wallace, Caldwell to Council, Hansen to Homedale, Malad to Meridian, and Boise to Bonneville. Every time I walk through the doors of a school building, I can’t help but smile.
We seem to hear a constant message of what’s wrong in our schools, but I simply don’t buy it. I have watched you do your work and your work is like none other. You change live. You build the foundation for our future. You make dreams come true, and your work is what makes this country great. Public education is the corner stone of our democracy and great things are happening each and every day in our public schools! Stand up for what you do and be proud of your work! ALL of you deserve appreciation and thanks.
There are so many stories I could tell about things that have happened over the last six years, but I will just mention a couple. Jim Shackelford taught me a very important lesson: how to have and KEEP a poker face. However, there were times when both he and Robin had to do some re-teaching. He also would tell me not to swear when I talked to the media, and I am happy to report to you that I never did!
How about way back in October of 2005, just after I started as President, I was picking apples in my back yard and a huge apple fell out of the tree and hit me in the cheek bone, giving me a big black eye. That week, Marilyn Howard announced her retirement, so I was interviewed by all the press – with a black eye. I also had a black eye for my first meeting with all the stakeholder leaders and the state board, and none of them really believed my story of how I got it.
Or how about the time, just this last legislative session when I could no longer keep my mouth shut when people lied in their testimony. I told the governor’s education advisor that he lied about who was in the room to write the Luna bills. When Frank VanderSloot was here to testify, I got his attention and said to him, “I think you need to meet me, I am Sherri Wood, the Union Boss you have been bashing in the newspaper the last several weeks.” He tried to tell me he wasn’t bashing me or teachers. He said he loved teachers, but I told him that in light of his ads, that sounded pretty abusive to me. I also told him he was clueless about the Luna bills and he had no idea what the bills would do to our schools and our educators. I also I thanked him for helping us increase our membership. I told him I am proud to be a Union Boss, and that his ads just make us stronger!
Many of you have asked me what I plan to do when I finish my term as president. I usually respond with “as little as possible for a while.” The only thing I have on my calendar for the month of August is a haircut, and my friend Carmen and I are going to Challis for four days to be seeing the Braun Brothers at their reunion concert.
My daughter Whitney – she is the President of the University of Idaho student IEA program, and she is a delegate here today – will be moving back home to do her student teaching at the elementary school she attend, Cynthia Mann, so I get to be a stay-at-home mom, and I am very proud that she is entering the profession where I left off. And, I will retire from this great profession on September 1.
I thank each and every one of you as well as all the members you represent—it has been an honor and a privilege to be your advocate. The opportunity to serve as your president has been a gift – a gift for which I am enormously grateful. I value the friendships that I have made with you, and please know that I proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with you as you continue to fight for our children, our members, and public education! Stay strong, carry on, and continue to give the gift of the art of living well. From deep in my heart, I love you, I will miss you, and I thank you!