A Q&A with VP Alicia Priest

Alicia Priest is quick to laugh or make a joke. She’s the kind of person that finds fun in most every situation.

But there is also the Alicia Priest who thinks very deeply about her job and about public education. While she loves life, she very committed to growing the Oklahoma Education Association and pushing for true improvement in education for the sake of our children.

Priest was recently elected to her first full term as vice president after spending a year completing Linda Hampton’s term after she stepped into the presidency. Priest taught English Language Learners (ELL) and Spanish in Yukon for 16 years before joining OEA as vice president. Since taking office, she has represented the Association in a number of settings, including serving on the State’s Teacher Leader Effectiveness Commission, which is charged with identifying a new statewide teacher and principal evaluation system.

In just a short time, Priest’s travels have taken her places she never thought she would be. She recently sat down with the Education Focus to talk about what she’s seen so far and where she thinks education is headed. 

You spent a year completing Linda Hampton’s term as vice president, and now you’ve been elected to your first full term. What has been your biggest “aha” moment about the job, the biggest surprise?

“I thought that I could imagine what the job entailed, but it’s so much more. I may have five meetings in a day and they will all be on different topics in education. From taxes to teacher evaluations to helping plan Summer Leadership to whatever. And you’re pretty much expected to be an expert in all those areas. That’s the biggest ‘aha.’”

What has been your best moment as VP, so far?

“One of the best things so far was getting to participate in the State Teacher of the Year ceremony (September 2011) and getting to congratulate those teachers. That’s a fantastic thing to do. But the best thing was probably when we had the Common Core Cadre in our headquarters for training that first time. We had 53 teachers here who were asked to create the training that would teach teachers about Common Core State Standards. The excitement that they had about being treated as professionals, about being the teachers that had the knowledge to create the training, was electrifying throughout the building. Being part of that was my best moment.”

At this summer’s NEA Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C., you had the opportunity to be part of a welcoming committee backstage with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden. How was that experience?

“I got to meet Vice President Biden and his wife and I had my picture taken with him. I tried to just not slobber all over myself (laughs). As a little girl, I never dreamed of meeting the Vice President of the United States. I’m just little Alicia from Oklahoma City, who am I to meet to the vice president? So, always dream big, think of the impossible, because it can happen.”

After spending so many years in the classroom, what drives you vice president of this organization? What inspires you in this position?

“Being a positive influence for public education. Looking at my daughter and knowing that I can make a difference in what happens with her schooling. It’s awesome. It’s what drives me.”

What goals have you set for yourself as vice president?

“I want to leave our leaders more energized, more knowledgeable, with more to say in advocating for themselves than when I became vice president.”

What are the biggest changes you see coming for the Association over the next three years?

“The convergence of the full implementation of Teacher/Leader Evaluation System, Common Core and not knowing what’s going to happen with testing. I think that’s huge for education and what we’re trying to work through right now.”

What opportunities do you see coming for the Association?

“We have great opportunities to move the profession forward; to learn about what the trends are in education, what is making educators strong. OEA has an opportunity to harness the energy of teachers to push the profession forward.

If you could have five minutes with legislators, what would tell them about OEA.

“I would tell them my story. I would tell them that I had great teachers who inspired me to become a teacher. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a teacher. Everybody told me I needed to be an administrator because I was extra bossy. It will take funding to do all the things they have mandated for us to do. They need to step up and send that money where it’s needed. Get the money to text books, to classroom supplies. We’ve got to take care of our students, and you can’t do that on a shoestring budget.”

What advice do you have for our members as we approach Election Day in November?

“Vote education. You went into education, obviously not for the paycheck. You went into education because it’s your passion, because you care about kids, because you want to make a difference. You have to look at education issues when you’re voting.”

Reforms are coming fast to public education – Common Core and a new evaluation system in particular. How will that affect the education process in the coming months?

“Changing the evaluation system can have a very positive impact on the classroom if we move all of our administrators, teachers and support professionals to a point of more knowledge of what’s going on in education. None of the evaluation will be worth the change and angst is we don’t change our practice. Principals will have to come into a classroom and truly evaluate a teacher. Principals must have the knowledge to recognize issues with teaching in the classroom and connect those issues with professional development to get help for a teacher who is struggling in an area. Teachers want to do their best. If they’re not doing their best, let’s give them the tools to get better. That should be what drives the evaluation system.”

Is there a group more scrutinized than teachers?

“No. There are jokes about lawyers, but they are still respected and not thrown under the bus as often as we are. We have to learn to tell our story, tell the story of our students, tell the story of our schools and to advocate for ourselves. That is so important right now, that we learn to say, ‘Look at what you’re doing, Mr. Legislator. The law that you created, this is what it’s done to my classroom. This is what it has done to my students, and it needs to be fixed.’”

The stress will no doubt be higher for teachers with these changes. What advice do you have for them?

“You have to use time management skills. You have to learn to say, 'I’ve done enough for today; I’m going home to be with my family. I’ve got to do things that are rejuvenating to me right now.'

"Being in education can really suck the life out of you. It sucks your energy. You’ve got all these demands, all these critics, all these extra duties without pay. You do them because you care and because you want your students to be successful. But you have to remember to feed your soul. If you don’t, then nothing else matters. You won’t be able to reach the students like you want to.

"The best advice I was ever given came from Nita Duke (a colleague and mentor of Alicia’s at Parkland Elementary in Yukon). I was stressed out one day because I felt like I needed to be in class with my students and not have a substitute. My daughter Kenna was sick, she was just a baby. Nita said, ‘In five, 10 years, nobody’s going to remember that Alicia Priest had a substitute on this day. But eventually, when your daughter is older, she’ll know her momma didn’t stay with her when she was sick. You have to have priorities.”

Many of our long-time members are retiring but the younger teachers are not joining at the rate of past generations. Why should younger teachers join?

“Because we’re their professional organization. We’re the ones who are going to stand by you as an early teacher and provide mentor support, provide help. A younger teacher has as much to give career teachers as we have to give them. I am not a technology native, but a lot of our entry year teachers are. They can teach me those things; I can teach them classroom discipline. We need to look at our entry year teachers in a collaborative effort and show respect both ways. We need to show them how they can grow in the association.”

What was your best tactic of recruiting members?

“One-on-one conversations. Tell them my story, tell them why I’m a member, this is what it’s done for me.”


 

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