New NEA leader speaks out for nation's maligned teachers

Remember the teacher who taught you more than you ever thought you'd learn? Who, even though you disliked the subject, made you and every student in the class rise to his goals? That special teacher who shared a smile or a laugh with only you, so that if anyone made a wisecrack about him in the hall, well, he would have to eat those words - or else.

The National Education Association just elected that teacher its president. In September, Mary Hatwood Futrell walks to the head of the class of the nation's second-largest union. And she does so just as the condition of education, and the 1.7 million-member NEA, have become matters of intense national debate.

In recent weeks President Reagan has advocated a merit-pay system for teachers as a method of holding and attracting good teachers in public schools. In a Monitor interview, Mrs. Futrell said that some of the President's comments implied that many teachers were not doing their jobs, in effect trying to make them scapegoats for problems in the nation's schools.

''No one denies that there are teachers who aren't qualified to teach,'' she says. ''We're just as concerned about this as anyone. But the teachers' colleges that produced those people and the state education departments that certified them are responsible for putting them in the classroom, not us.''

''If we [teachers] should be blamed for anything, we should be blamed for not making our case more strongly for all the responsibility society puts on us,'' Mrs. Futrell says.

Mary Alice, as she was known, grew up in Lynchburg, Va., attending segregated elementary and secondary schools. She graduated from all-black Virginia State College in Petersburg and received her master's degree from George Washington University in the nation's capital. That was the first time in her life she set foot in an integrated classroom.

When she was five her father, a construction worker, passed on, leaving her mother, a domestic worker, to raise her and her older sister.

But it wasn't until she began teaching business education at a high school attended by children of lower-income families that she realized what her mother had done for her.

''I couldn't get the parents to come to school and take an interest in what their children were doing.'' Her mother had worked three jobs, yet would still come by school on the way from one job to another to see how her daughters were doing.

A major turning point for her professionally was when a white child from a ghetto school asked, ''Why are you trying so hard to get us to learn, don't you know kids from our neighborhood can't learn?''

She draws on this experience when she hears people complain about all the problems with federal funding of education. ''Look at the other side of the coin: If there were no funding, what would happen to these kids?''

Her new post earns $71,263 annually. For the last three years NEA duties have kept her out of the classroom, and though ''I miss the daily contact with students, I also know I'll be back in the classroom,'' says Mrs. Futrell.

In her presidential acceptance speech at the NEA national convention last week, Mrs. Futrell left little doubt as to what her new ''class'' would cover during her two-year term of office. She intends to do what she can to deliver the NEA vote - to a candidate with national education policies the NEA supports.

''I am determined,'' she said, ''that all political leaders shall be held responsible for their rhetoric, their response and their reaction to the needs of America's public schools. And should there be any doubt in your minds, I am determined that the President of the United States shall be held accountable for his actions as fully as he holds us accountable for ours.''

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