lily eskelsen garcia is missing the point

For Jenny

The other day, I wrote an open letter to Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the now infamous President of the NEA. In that letter, I wrote the following:

Last month, you made a speech at the Campaign for America’s Future Awards Gala. The gala was billed as an opportunity to celebrate “progressive champions.” You were one of those champions. In your speech, you said the following:

“We diversify our curriculum instruction to meet the personal individual needs of all of our students: the blind, the hearing impaired, the physically challenged, the gifted and talented, the chronically tarded and the medically annoying.”

…the chronically tarded and the medically annoying.

I can only assume that you thought that would be funny. I’m sure that it would have gotten a hearty laugh out of the Donald. But Ms. Eskelsen Garcia, mocking my child’s disability and her medical condition is not funny. Not even a little.

Let me say that again. Mocking my child’s disability and her medical condition is not funny. It’s reprehensible. And it’s made far more reprehensible by the source.

You represent three million teachers, Ms. Eskelsen Garcia. Three million people who show up at work each day and greet our children. Three million people who can either look at their disabled students just as they do their non-disabled peers – as capable, worthy, beautiful, complicated, fully dimensional human beings who can flourish with their care and expertise — or — as an annoyance, a cost, a hindrance. Or worse, as fodder for a punch line.

The American Association of People with Disabilities has made a statement forcefully condemning your words. I hope you’ve seen it. I hope you’ve taken it in and tried hard to understand how hurtful this is to so many and more importantly, why.

Ms. Eskelsen Garcia, you have an incredible opportunity here. I implore you to use it.

Apologize for your ill-chosen words.

Mean it.

Talk about why what you said was so vastly inappropriate and why no one else should ever follow suit.

You are an educator, Ms. Eskelsen Garcia.

Use this moment to educate.


Shortly thereafter, I got a note from Ms Eskelsen Garcia via Twitter.

This has been a teachable moment for me, and I apologize for my choice of words. #UnacceptableExample

She included a link to her public apology. This was what it said:

Open mouth. Insert foot. That’s what I did.

You may have seen video of me addressing the Campaign for America’s Future in October, where I mentioned my frustration with those who believe there’s a single fix for public schools. I related an encounter with one such person, and I said I should have used the opportunity to give him the rundown of everything today’s public schools do.

In my speech, I attempted to give the full litany of our responsibilities in a playful way. I had in mind those commercials we’ve all seen for prescription drugs in which a lengthy list of possible side effects is stated at warp speed, while smiling people go on a hike or enjoy a candlelight dinner.

Epic fail. In my attempt to be clever and funny, I stepped on a word in one phrase, and I created another phrase that I believed was funny, but was insulting. I apologize.

It started out well enough: “We serve kids a hot meal. We put Band-Aids on boo-boos.” I sped up my delivery for effect, speaking much more quickly than I normally do. And that’s when I went into a skid.

“We diversify our curriculum of instruction to meet the personal and individual needs of all our students – the blind, the hearing impaired, the physically challenged, the gifted and talented, the chronically [tardy] and the medically annoying.”

I meant to say “the chronically tardy,” but that’s not what came out.  I was making the point that we adapt daily lesson plans and schedules to meet the needs of students who, often through no fault of their own, are never on time. Tardiness can be a huge factor in poor academic performance. Sometimes, students are tardy because of physical or mobility issues; other times, tardiness is a symptom of deeper issues at home. You know how embarrassed and out of place you feel when you walk in late to an important work meeting? Well, imagine how a child feels when she is consistently late for school, her “job.”  As educators, we have to devise ways to keep chronically tardy students on track, or else they will fall hopelessly behind and feel marginalized.

As to the second phrase, I did say “medically annoying.” I apologize for my choice of words. Let me be clear: I was not referring to students who are ill or medically fragile. I was referring to the student who, for example, has an argument with his girlfriend and now is having a very bad day, and doing everything humanly possible to annoy the teacher. What we do in our classrooms and how we adjust must take these students into consideration, too.

I realize that my words have taken on a life of their own. But those who know me and my work know that my entire career – beginning with my years as a lunch lady and then as a teacher in Utah – has been devoted to ensuring that all students, regardless of their ZIP code, have the support and tools they need. That means that much of what happens in today’s schools goes well beyond lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic.

This has been a teachable moment for me, and I hope students will learn from my error, too. We all should be more careful before we speak, slow down and make sure our points are well articulated and fully understood.

The bottom line is, I screwed up and I apologize. Please judge me by my heart, not by my mistakes.

I wanted to be gracious. I appreciated the fact that she said the words, “I screwed up.” I tweeted back to her.

It’s not easy to say “I screwed up and I’m sorry,” but that IS a model for our kids. I sincerely hope you will continue the conversation about the words we choose and their impact, not just as a reflection of our values, but as a vehicle to shape them.

And then I tried to walk away.

But something just wasn’t sitting right. Something big. The post is an apology for making it look like she was making fun of one group of kids (those with special needs) when what she says she really meant was to just to make fun of the late and annoying ones.

There are so many things still wrong with all of this that I am literally stymied as to where to begin. The explanation itself is desperately implausible given the context and the “kid who broke up with his girlfriend” makes almost no sense whatsoever. But arguing about what a person meant to say is an exercise in futility, so let’s continue on the premise that she really did mean “chronically tardy” and “[something closer to certifiably] annoying.”

In her apology, Ms Eskelsen Garcia says:

Sometimes, students are tardy because of physical or mobility issues; other times, tardiness is a symptom of deeper issues at home. You know how embarrassed and out of place you feel when you walk in late to an important work meeting? Well, imagine how a child feels when she is consistently late for school, her “job.”  As educators, we have to devise ways to keep chronically tardy students on track, or else they will fall hopelessly behind and feel marginalized.

She’s right. The problem is that she used those kids as a punchline in an attempt to be, in her words, “clever and funny.” I’d say what she achieved was instead lazy and insensitive.

As for kids who are “medically annoying,” she says that she meant, “the student who, for example, has an argument with his girlfriend and now is having a very bad day, and doing everything humanly possible to annoy the teacher.”

While I refer you back to the fact that this explanation is inane at best, I’m sticking to the premise that we can take her at her word, so here goes …

Have you ever heard the expression When a child acts the least lovable, he needs the most love? The kids who are “doing everything humanly possible to annoy the teacher” are KIDS. Kids who are, in their own way, making it clear that they need help or attention, that they are dysregulated or overwhelmed,  that are in need of structure, discipline or predictability. What I promise you they don’t need? To be laughed at because they are such a burden that it’s comical.

My dad was a middle school principal for 45 years. You would be hard-pressed to find a more staunch or vocal supporter of teachers. He believed in the calling of the profession. He gave everything he had to the people who came to work each day and took on the daunting responsibility of molding young minds and caring for tender, vulnerable young hearts. It was a responsibility that he took very, very seriously. Because he adored and respected children.

His late wife, Noelle, was a middle school science teacher. When she passed away in June, I had the honor of spending her last days with her. As such, I bore witness to scores of friends coming to see her for the last time. One day, a group of her colleagues came to the house and gathered around her bed. They began to tell stories, recounting their hijinks and talking about this kid and that. One of them brought up a girl I’ll call Jenny. Groans and eye rolls went up around the room. Noelle’s face lit up with a smile. “I miss my Jenny,” she said.

One of the teachers told me later that Jenny was a perennial pain in the ass. She was always getting herself into trouble and disrupting classes. “But Noelle never, ever lost her patience or got mad at her,” she said. “Never.”

Jenny and her mom came to Noelle’s memorial service. They sent a beautiful note afterward to let us know how very much she had meant to both of them. Jenny wrote her own letter to tell us that she was going to do everything she could to make Mrs. Gordon proud of her.

Teachers take on a tremendous responsibility every single day. And with that responsibility comes power. Power to enlighten, to inspire, to foster compassion, encourage empathy, create life-long learners. And the power to tear apart a kid’s self-esteem. To make them believe themselves unworthy of notice, of attention, of care.

It’s a lot to take on. And many of them do it with one hand tied behind their backs in schools without remotely adequate resources in districts that can barely pay them no less give them the training or materials they need. They do it all while working with kids whose families are struggling or who have no families at all. It’s not easy.

There will be times when those teachers will need to vent, perhaps to find humor in what they do. Maybe even to let off steam and call a kid, “certifiably annoying.” That place is a private one: a faculty room, a quiet conversation with a friend, a late night run-down of the day with a spouse. It is not ever, ever public. And it sure as hell isn’t a podium at a national awards gala.

Yesterday, I responded to a comment from a reader. “I appreciate the apology,” I said. “I like that [Ms. Eskelsen Garcia] said that she screwed up. I just wish I really felt like she understood WHY.”

She closed her apology with the following, clearly believing it to be the lesson learned in all this.

“We all should be more careful before we speak, slow down and make sure our points are well articulated and fully understood.”

She’s desperately missing the point.





18 thoughts on “lily eskelsen garcia is missing the point

  1. “The post is an apology for making it look like she was making fun of one group of kids (those with special needs) when what she says she really meant was to just to make fun of the late and annoying ones.”

    Holy cow, that’s it!

    It’s also that this is *exactly how* so many disabled kids have their challenges written off as laziness or disciplinary problems. Or how so many disabled kids were thought of in years when accurate diagnosis of autism or ADHD was much less common.

    She’s still just taking out her frustration on kids whose needs and obstacles aren’t well-understood.

    The point is, no group of kids should be a punchline.

      • Yes! What group of “educators” appointed her their chief? I can’t imagine how this Garcia person ever got to be head of any type of educators group! She should be fired, and immediately. IF she isn’t fired, then that speaks volumes about this “educators” group which would accept her inane and stupid and completely false statements after her speech – her words are insulting and her “apology” is even worse!

  2. I am so very glad that I am not alone in my reserve to accept her apology as is, it seems very backhanded and misguided. As a regular ed/special ed teacher, and now a sahm of two young boys with autism, I think that it is reprehensible that a woman in such a powerful position has given her peers and acolytes the okay to continue forward with her backward views of the “chronically tardy…and medically annoying” students. Teachers can get caught up in their own perspectives, forgetting that their students have lives and issues beyond the classroom that they cannot begin to comprehend. It is our job as teachers to challenge our negative views of students, by exercising empathy and individualized support. It is far better, for all involved, for a teacher to take the time to understand each student’s specific needs and issues than to place judgement and punishment when empathy and support could resolve so much of the angst on both sides. I have had the caseload of 45 special needs students in two separate schools, spanning K-5th grade. It isn’t easy, but they are worth it. I think this woman needs some sensitivity training.

  3. You were so obviously raised by a fine educator. So was I; like your Dad, my mother also became a head of school after years of teaching. She’s gone now, but she believe so passionately in what you wrote, and would have been proud that I know you.

  4. I have a question Jess. I’m puzzling through what I think myself on it and would love your thoughts as well. It seems today we no longer observe any distinction between private and public speech. In many ways the breakdown of this distinction this is very unpleasant. “Oversharing” is the new norm. So “venting” frustration in public and in publically inappropriate ways is becoming the new normal. The thing is i’m not sure its always a bad thing. If we are saying that teachers (or anyone really) are”venting” about how annoying our special needs children (or the tardy ones or the lazy or needy or whatever) are in private is ok, are we not saying that feeling that way about our kids is ok – just as long as you pretend you don’t? And isn’t hidden prejudice just as damaging, if not more so, than public?

    I’m conflicted on this because I know the need to vent. To let out some frustration so you can remain patient and loving in the moment with a child (my own no less) that can be very difficult to deal with at times. So I don;t want to be all politically correct thought police here.

    • my feeling is that it’s exactly the same as parent bloggers venting online about how difficult life can be with their kids vs calling another mom or dad for a private bitch session. As human beings, there are times that we all need to commiserate, to engage in otherwise inappropriate behavior, to say that it’s hard. to get a pat on the head from a friend who gets it. We need community of our own and sometimes we even need to laugh and say ‘My kid is driving me up the wall!”

      There are bound to be times where some teachers need the same. Not all of them will. Noelle didn’t. But human beings often need to find humor in challenge to get through it. If it’s truly private, and not mean spirited, I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful. But they (teachers) also have to keep each other in check, just as we (parents) do. mocking kids? never, ever okay. saying a kid is annoying the crap out of you today? i think that’s different.

  5. First of all, chronically and tardy are used together all the time in education. Any true educator, not looking for a hole in her speech would be able to see that. If you rewind it again and again (I have not), you might be able to “catch” her saying tarded but that is surely not what was intended.

    Secondly ANY mother knows how their children can be “medically annoying.” I have a cough/fever/sore throat/stubbed toe/small cut etc. This happens also in the classroom. I had a kid pick a scab and make it bleed the other day and said, “so, you hate this class SO much that you are willing to make yourself bleed to get out of it?”

    I give that kid the love that he is needing. You mistake the word annoying for hateful. You also show that in a time politically when people really question what teachers do and do not do that you cannot have a sense of humor about how they “vent” about it.

    I can be rushed, annoyed and overwhelmed by the children (some of them tardy) in my class but that DOES NOT mean I don’t love and appreciate them and do my best to make sure they do well.

    If you think that her mischosen words are really what her speech was about, then I think it is you, not her that is missing the point.

    • It wasn’t the mischosen words, though they were, as she acknowledged, incredibly insensitive. It was, as I said clearly in the post, the fact that she opted to use a group (any group) of kids with challenges to get a poke-to-the-ribs laugh from the podium at a national event, which, given her position as the representative voice of 3 million teachers, was vastly inappropriate.

      I have no doubt that you care about your kids and I’m thrilled to hear that you sound like a wonderful teacher. As I also said in the post, I don’t blame anyone for venting PRIVATELY. Where kids can’t hear you and take in the message that they are an annoyance to those charged with their care, have it.

    • I can only say that when the child who is “medically annoying” becomes your own, the perspective changes drastically. As educators, may we always consider that perspective.

    • Have you seen first apology that she wrote on 11/24?. She says she said “tardy” not “tarded”. She says she use “medically” to mean “extremely”. Those are not synonyms.

      The first apology can be found here:

      “Lily Eskelsen Garcia says:
      November 24, 2015 at 7:46 pm
      Thank you for letting me know your concerns. To correct the major misunderstanding, in my remarks I mention “chronically tardy” not “chronically retarded”. Also, in an attempt at humor I mention students who are “medically annoying” referring to any typical student who is doing something really annoying in class – “medically” meaning “extremely”.

      I understand completely that you do not see humor in my remarks. I also understand that the impact of my words on you hurt and angered you and that surely was not my intent. Good intentions, however, still have impact, and so I apologize for using a phrase that could be so easily misunderstood that it appeared I was referring to medically fragile students. I never have and never will disparage the children I have spent my life serving.

      I hope you will accept my apology.


      She said what she said. Then when called out on it, she made that first poor apology. Then when called out on that and the continuing backlash she received, she then began backpedaling-changing her apology to the public one (which is totally different), where she actually admits to saying “tarded” but that she meant “tardy” and it just came out wrong. She said that “medically annoying” meant when a “kid breaks up with someone and annoys the teacher” (my paraphrasing).

      She does not say sorry for what SHE SAID. She is sorry that WE FEEL she made fun of special needs kids, even though she says she was not making fun of special needs kids.

      My feelings are:
      1)She meant what she initially said (she had a written speech!).
      2)She said it at a gala as a form of entertainment such as a “roast”
      3)She is not sorry that she made fun of special needs kids or any kids for that matter.
      4)She is sorry we are calling her out on it.
      5)I work in the education field. If this were said at the university where I work, there would be serious ramifications.
      6)I am a daughter, grand-daughter, niece, cousin, and friend to some amazing teachers. They would never say such a thing on purpose or accidentally because they have the education and skills to make a speech properly. She didn’t use hers.

      I have special needs kids-with medical issues and disabilities. This is hitting me hard. I have had to advocate and fight for my kids since they were born. I have had IEP and 504 meetings where the teachers/educational professionals all but called my kids the “r” word or “annoying”.

      One example I can give you is when a teacher made fun of my daughter and the way she walked to the restroom and accused her of faking restroom breaks to get out of class in the 4th grade. She has a kidney and bladder disease. Sometimes she has spasms that not only are painful, but cause incontinence. So, sometimes she has to walk slowly and even pause and hold on to the wall when she walks, especially on stairs. She cannot tell when her bladder is full. Between the spasms and being afraid her bladder is full, she sometimes tries to use the restroom 10 times in an hour.

      Could she maybe abuse it? I don’t know any kid who would be tempted to try. However, she has a specialists that have run all kids of tests (some invasive) since she was age 4, she has been hospitalized, had surgery, had kidney infections that have landed her in the hospital with sepsis, and all of the medical documents provided to the school for her 504.

      My children have had some wonderful teachers and education staff/leaders. My son’s IEP is very difficult. I know- I live it. I, for one, will be thanking those wonderful teachers past and present, again. I do thank them and tell them that they are wonderful, but it is a good reminder to do it again and again.

      I do not lump the bad apples with them. But, these things do happen and when they do, we need to speak out.

  6. Just another perspective written with peaceful intentions of peaceful discussion 🙂 ….. I didn’t take it that she was making fun of any child or group of children. What I heard was that she was making fun of the idea that there is one single solution for a vastly diverse population. It seems to me that her intent was not to make fun of the children, but, rather, to include as many diversities as possible to prove her point in a humorous manner. It wasn’t that teachers deal with blind, deaf, troubled, violent, delayed, etc… children that was supposed to be funny. That teachers deal with these students is simply a matter of fact and the funny part was the length of the list and that people actually think there’s one solution to teaching this incredibly diverse group. I genuinely took it that she was just trying to make the list as long as possible.

    Interestingly enough, I actually heard the word “tardy” when I watched the clip before there was any backlash about it. That said, her “tarded” slip was certainly not good, and I’m sure, embarrassing for her. And, I agree that publicly labeling any student as annoying was unwise. But, I don’t think she was trying to find humor in the fact that students are annoying or disabled, the humor was clearly intended to be about the idea that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer out there. The rest, I truly believe was just meant to be a list to exaggerate the absurdity of that thought. It’s the thought that’s absurd because of the list. I can’t imagine she made it to the position she’s in with the idea that she could poke fun at any disability and I don’t personally believe that’s what she did.

    As for her apology, maybe she didn’t understand to apologize that way because, in her heart, she was never actually making fun of those kids in the first place.

    Just some thoughts from someone who doesn’t even necessarily support the NEA (the way it’s done) in the first place. 🙂

  7. My read was really different, I felt like she was making fun (although not eloquently) of the insane amount of variables a teacher has to deal with everyday (not the kids themselves) and even when they seem small, like being tardy or having a tummy ache, it’s just a damn lot to juggle every day. And, it is. But as she says in her apology, it came out all wrong and she should have done better.

  8. Having raised an “other health impaired” and learning disabled child, fought for his rights at school, and struggled with his feelings of inadequacy; I can honestly say this woman is NOT the bad guy and I thought she said chronically “tardy” as I laughed listening to her speech. Yes, I laughed; because guess what? I’m also a retired teacher. Sometimes, you have to laugh or you will cry at how much our children and our teachers endure in any one day. I had a totally different read on what she shared and the manner in which it was shared. I hesitate to say this, but sometimes we need to lighten up just a bit. I’m not saying you shouldn’t “stand” for your kids or bring those to task that aren’t understanding of you and your child’s needs. However, be careful that you have the right target and that you’re fighting the good fight!

    I heard nothing in this woman’s speech that demeaned children of any type. I heard it as a “hey, this is what is coming at us constantly and we stay committed to and respectful of the kids we teach (while maintaining our own sense of humor)!” I noted in another comment on a different page that the “chronically tardy” were there every year that I taught. I could fuss and fume in private about their behavior, but I always came back to “why is this child tardy and how can I help them get past this behavior so they are more successful in school.” I does help to vent, and Ms. Garcia was speaking to adults (not children). Sure it was at public function, but my thoughts are that she believed we as discerning adults would get it. If she made a mistake, it was in thinking that people would take a look at things through the eyes of a teacher. Teachers want to believe that the majority of people know that we come in every day to face these challenges without losing our focus on the children before us by maintaining our patience, sense of humor, and desire to help every child.

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