Education Minnesota President Denise Specht addresses Rotary Club
When the head of the state’s educators union spoke in Forest Lake last week, it was a homecoming of sorts.
Education Minnesota President Denise Specht addressed the Forest Lake Rotary Club Oct. 16. Along with an update on her first 100 days in office, the Shoreview resident spoke fondly about working in ISD 831 early in her career.
“It was a great place to be,” she said. “The memory that I have of being a teacher here in Forest Lake was the support of the community and the schools. It was also the great teaching staff that was here then, and I know they’re here now.”
Indeed, it was a fortuitous hire made in 1992, both for Specht and the district. The Buffalo native had three years of teaching under her belt at the time, but miscalculated the job opportunities that awaited in her home state after moving back from Texas. She sent out applications all summer, but found little interest and ended up accepting a financial advisor position and moving back in with her parents.
Finally, at the end of August, Specht heard from Donley Johnson, the ISD 831 human resources director at the time.
“I was so excited,” Specht said. “I had no idea there was a Wyoming, Minn., but I found out exactly where it was.”
She spent three years teaching sixth grade at Wyoming Elementary. It was a formative time for the fourth-generation educator.
“The years that I spent here and the things that I learned have helped shape me, not only as an educator but a leader,” she said.
From Forest Lake Schools, Specht moved on to the Centennial School District, where she was a Title 1 teacher at Golden Lake Elementary School and president of the Centennial Education Association. She then spent six years as secretary-treasurer Education Minnesota. She was elected president of the group at the Representative Convention April 27.
Twenty-one years after arriving in the Forest Lake district, Specht again held the attention of a room here as she spoke to the club during its weekly luncheon.
A graduate of Moorhead State University and St. Cloud State University, Specht said her first big lessons in front of the classroom came in Texas. Her arrival there in 1989 brought her to the forefront of an emerging trend: standardized testing.
“It was cutting out the untested subject areas … and really having a big impact of what we could do in the classroom,” she said.
Specht found it fitting that after a summer of protests, The Lone Star State abolished some standardized tests and followed the lead of Minnesota and many other states by applying for a waiver of the requirements of the standards-based No Child Left Behind Act.
Top-down initiatives like that, or like the Common Core curriculum standards that Minnesota adopted for English, should allow for local discussion, Specht said. Teachers simply want their voice to be at the center of policy discussions, she said.
“The success of the students has always been because of the collaboration between educators and parents, educators and educators, and educators and the community,” she said. “We know that, and we need to continue that.”
Seemingly unrelated factors like social justice issues contribute to the education landscape, Specht said. Her role includes advocating for children’s health initiatives and supporting a minimum wage increase.
“When we have parents who are not worried about homework and paying the rent, but are able to be more engaged parents, then students are more successful,” she said.
Another of Specht’s presidential priorities is to raise the perceived prestige of working in education.
“I know that’s something that Forest Lake and (the Forest Lake Education Association) have been working on for a long time, but it’s not necessarily the case for every teacher,” Specht said. “Morale is low, and there’s a lot of demands on the job. … If we do not raise our profession and make this a profession that people want to join, want to do, we’re going to simply lose out on the best and the brightest to other careers in the private sector.”
It’s a career worth sticking with, Specht said, speaking from experience as someone who could have given up when the job search stalled. Upon her successful campaign for the Education Minnesota presidency, Specht received an email from a former Wyoming Elementary student of hers.
“I just wanted you to know that you had a big influence on my life, and now I’m a teacher because of you,” the writer said.