A former Paradise Valley teacher has been elected president of the largest national teachers union. Dennis Van Roekel, 61, officially starts his three-year term leading the 3.2 million-member National Education Association Sept. 1.
He said he hopes to spend that time helping states reevaluate what public schools need to do to prepare students for the 21st century and influencing public policy that will accomplish those goals.
Van Roekel first became a math teacher at Paradise Valley High School in 1974 after spending a few years teaching in Iowa.
He got involved in the Paradise Valley teachers union early on and was elected president of that group in 1978.
“As a teacher, you soon realize what you care most about — delivering a quality education to students — is so influenced by the people outside the classroom,” Van Roekel said. “The way you influence that is through public policy. All the policy decisions are made by publicly appointed or publicly elected people.”
He continued that route, serving as the full-time head of the Arizona Education Association from 1982 to 1988.
Van Roekel then went back to Paradise Valley High School until 1997, when he first took an office with the national teachers group. He’s moved up the ranks there ever since.
Van Roekel said the NEA’s first priority under his watch will be backing candidates who support public education in the 2008 presidential and congressional races.
After that, there are several pieces of education legislation coming down the pipeline, the most high-profile being the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act. While parts of NCLB are excellent, NEA members don’t believe a few standardized tests in math and reading should be the only measure of student success, Van Roekel said.
Van Roekel also wants to encourage individual states to critically look at the role public schools need to play in individual communities and what needs to be done to help them meet those goals.
But while, as Van Roekel puts it, his residence has moved to Washington, he still has strong ties to the Phoenix area. He tries to make it back at least once a month to see his six grandchildren, half of whom live in Queen Creek and half in the West Valley.
Van Roekel said he’s also proud that he’ll be addressing the Paradise Valley High School teacher luncheon on Aug. 1, which will be his 25th consecutive year at the event.