Parkite preaches unity during run for Utah Education Association presidency
Heidi Matthews began her quest to become president of the Utah Education Association last fall, hopeful that her voice could help unite the roughly 20,000 licensed teachers who lead Utah classrooms.
Matthews, a librarian at Treasure Mountain Junior High and former president of the Park City Education Association, is closing in on her goal. She was the leading vote-getter in the UEA’s four-candidate primary election in February and is awaiting the results of the general election, which runs through April 15.
"It’s been really exciting," she said. "And it’s been a long process. It’s been a really good experience, but I’m ready for it to be decided. My reasons for running and putting my name in the hat seem so long ago. They’ve really evolved."
Matthews’ self-professed evolution stems from her experiences traveling the state and meeting with local teachers association leaders. She’s come away with an understanding that there’s an expanding disconnect between educators and state lawmakers. Many teachers, continually asked to do more with fewer resources — and with no end to that cycle in sight — are feeling beaten down.
"They’re feeling like the people in positions of power in our Legislature aren’t listening to them," she said. "They don’t listen, they don’t invite teachers to the table. In some cases, they’re anti-teacher and certainly anti-union or any collective body. Yet they have no expertise or experience to be making these decisions about education. Then (the policies) don’t work, and who gets blamed when they fail? The teachers. And who is left to pick up the pieces? Teachers. And I think teachers are just weary of this constant cycle of being so overlooked and dismissed."
She added that getting to hear from teachers across the state has been an enlightening and valuable experience, whether she wins or loses the election.
"I don’t want to say we’re in a bubble here in Park City, because we do face a number of the same issues that are across the state," she said. "But you begin to realize the impact of class sizes in rural areas and things like what we are facing as a state in a teacher shortage — our existing teachers are being asked to mentor people who have no experience teaching."
Rallying UEA members to become more unified and stand with a collective voice would go a long way toward fixing the problems, Matthews said. She wants to encourage more teachers to join their local associations — which are affiliated with the UEA — and to inspire more engagement among current members.
Matthews believes her experience leading the Park City Education Association from 2009 to 2012 makes her the right person to lead the charge.
"We need a UEA leader with a proven experience of building membership," she said. "Under my leadership, Park City membership grew to just over 80 percent. That really changes the conversations that you have, in public and behind closed doors and at negotiations tables. When you’re a partner and representing the vast majority of your people, that brings with it a considerable more influence. I’d like to see that type of influence on a state level."
She is also hoping to develop strong binds with Utah communities, which she said often have misconceptions about teachers associations. Many people believe the associations only look out for their own interests and hamper a district’s ability to fire bad teachers. Matthews said the picture that’s often painted couldn’t be further from the truth.
She said healthy teachers unions advocate for things such as smaller class sizes, due process for teachers and better salary schedules to lure and retain better teachers — all of which make a difference in the classroom.
"I really want to instill the values in our communities and our parents and show them the value we provide," she said. "There’s a whole bunch of research that shows a strong teachers union correlates to student success. When you have a stronger teachers union, you have a collective voice that is advocating for conditions that are conducive for learning for our kids."
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