This column appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of The Classroom Teacher.
Executive Director's Message by Jeri Stone
This will likely be my last message to our members, and I hope you’ll indulge me in reminiscing a bit. I’ll be retiring as executive director on July 1, with Ann Fickel taking the helm. I am so proud that we have had a good succession plan in place for years, and Ann will be brilliant. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to continue to serve as a consultant for a time, since leaving the organization cold turkey might well have had me lurking in the parking lot, peeping in the windows.
It was 43 years ago when I answered a want ad, after a year in private practice with a civil firm upon graduating from law school. The private practice didn’t suit me well, since it encompassed everything from probating wills to business litigation, none of which are you really taught to do in law school. That left me feeling out of my depth and ill-equipped to provide the best to my clients, though I did learn more than anyone should ever know about the Dead Man’s statute (which is an exception to the rule about hearsay evidence, if the person who purportedly said something is no longer in a position to confirm or refute it). That knowledge base was never useful at TCTA.
When I walked into the beautiful Bremond building for my interview, I knew that I wanted to work there, as long as it wasn’t a union. Remember that this was pre-internet, so it wasn’t so easy to do research on a potential employer. Jan Lanfear, God bless her — she still works for us part time and is beloved by all — screened me and I think was largely responsible for my hiring. I still remember what she was wearing that day. Imagine my surprise when just over two weeks later we had a two-week break for the holidays! I thought this must be the best place ever to work, and I still think that, though for far more reasons.
First, I have to acknowledge our incredible staff. They are such an extraordinary bunch of amazingly talented people, all of whom are dedicated to doing all they can to improve life for our members and be there if you need them. Those of you who have been paying close attention may have noted the unusual length of service of most of the members of our staff (more than one-third, 10 employees, have worked at TCTA for more than 20 years). The people who leave generally do so early, because they weren’t quite as committed or as talented as we needed them to be, and with a staff as relatively small as ours is, a weak link shows up early. (There are some who leave for foolish reasons like getting married and moving, and we’ll forgive them.)
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have not had a single resignation from our staff, though I am sad to report that the irreplaceable Dohn Larson, who is older than I am, plans to leave us in the foreseeable future to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. I attribute the loyalty of our staff largely to the following: supportive and dedicated elected leaders who are true believers in TCTA; the extraordinary privilege of being able to do work that is both professionally and spiritually satisfying; and the camaraderie of talented and sometimes quirky colleagues who enjoy each other’s company and respect each other’s ideas.
A lot has changed over the years, and a lot has stayed the same, as we tangle with issues that have been present for decades. When I started at TCTA, there was much less law on the books and it was harder than anticipated to learn school law, such as it was, since my predecessor had been gone for months and there was a towering stack of files on my desk. (This is not a recommended succession strategy.) My eternal thanks to Joretta Garvin, who took my near-daily calls to teach me school law at a time when the Education Code did not include teacher contracts, planning and preparation periods, duty-free lunch, assured access to health insurance coverage, class-size caps, or most of the other provisions we still talk about today. The erosion in some of these laws, such as class-size caps and certification qualifications, via the District of Innovation (DOI) law makes me both sad and angry, particularly since in this age of data-based everything, nobody seems to be checking the consequences. And of course, standardized testing has done so much damage. Policymakers keep doubling down on the implementation of it while simultaneously lamenting that our students just aren’t performing better. Does that not suggest, to a reasonable person, that what we’ve been doing since the “Texas Miracle” is not working, and maybe we should pursue another course?
But this is not the time to digress into a policy discussion. From my perspective, COVID has been an inflection point, and a great many things have changed and are not going to go back to the way they were before, including in public education. Though this is a time for improvements and enhancements, it also seems to me to be a logical time to move to a new executive director, who can bring both a solid grounding in our history and a fresh perspective. The realization that it’s probably time to let someone else take the lead is gradual, kind of like getting fat (though one of our delegates did, to my amusement and chagrin, once approach me in the ladies room with something along the lines of “Girl, you’ve put on some pounds!” I would prefer to leave before someone similarly points out that I’ve put on some years.)
It has been an incredible honor and privilege to have worked for and with you for these many years. One of the best things about the position is that it never gets boring; there is always something new and previously unencountered, to go along with the issues that are revisited perpetually. There are so many of you I need to thank, and I plan to reach out to many of you in the months ahead and hope not to lose contact. I will miss (almost) all of you. You will continue to have my best wishes and best efforts to be recognized as the courageous and accomplished professionals that you are. With that, I’ll say my goodbye, and hope that our paths cross again.