Teaching Profession

NEA’s Wilson Shares His Post-'Retirement’ Plans

By Erik W. Robelen — December 21, 2010 4 min read
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John Wilson, who is stepping down in August as the executive director of the National Education Association, shared his plans for Life After the NEA in an interview yesterday. They include starting his own blog, serving (if asked) on the boards of corporations and social-justice organizations, and sharing his expertise as an adviser to politicians and what he calls “next-generation” candidates for political office. But there’s apparently no golfing in his future. He said he doesn’t play the game.

So, yes, at age 63, Wilson’s retiring. But not really.

I, of course, started with the obvious question: Why did you decide to retire from the NEA?

“Because I can,” Wilson said with a laugh. “To me, being executive director of the NEA is a pretty 24-7 job. ... I think that 10 years is really a good amount of time.”

He noted that since taking the job, his intention had been to serve no more than a decade. And come next Aug. 31, his last day, it will be closer to 11 years.

In elaborating on the move, he waxed historical: “I grew up in the NEA. I’ve been a member for 44 years, since I was a freshman in college.”

Then he waxed philosophical: “I believe in the energy of new beginnings. I think every organization needs refreshing and new beginnings, and I also believe in the power of sacrificing a job that you love, work that you do, so that you can give it to someone to take it to a higher level.”

As for his plans, as mentioned, he’s got plenty in mind to stay busy, and engaged.

“I will do other things in service to children,” he said. “Here’s what I’m hoping to do. I don’t have to work, but if opportunities come along, I would be likely to sit on corporate boards, because I want to continue to influence business about how important it is for them to be in alliance with teachers and education-support professionals.” He noted that he was active in helping to found the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Wilson serves on the “strategic council” for that organization alongside representatives from a variety of corporations and nonprofit groups.

He added: “I’d be willing to sit on social-justice boards, because I really believe in human rights.”

In addition, Wilson said he wants to be an “idea adviser” to politicians, such as governors. “I would immerse myself in that state, and quite frankly, I do that for free for a lot of people now.”

And he also wants to stay involved in political campaigns. “I’m going to help next-generation candidates, help run or manage or advise 30- or 40-year-olds running for political office, whether city council, school board, county commissioner, but set people up who are really smart, savvy, next-generation leaders because I think this country needs a lot of them.”

Finally, yes, Wilson said he intends to join the blogosphere.

“I’m going to blog. I’m also going to write some Op-Eds. ... I think it would be interesting for someone from the NEA and union work to kind of step back and give a perspective about what the union really is and what the union can do, and not in a hostile or intrusive way, but in service to public education, but I do think the unions have a big responsibility to step up and ensure that children are learning.”

Wilson made clear that as a blogger, he will not be speaking for the NEA. “I’ll be blogging independently. ... I like the idea of being a free agent.”

Wilson said he’s enthusiastic that John Stocks, the NEA’s deputy executive director, has been named as the next executive director.

“He has a brilliant mind. ... He has the opportunity to take a lot of things we’ve laid the foundation for and really move them up. ... I feel like he’s been preparing for this and I really think it’s a mark of a high-performing organization to do these kinds of things.”

Finally, for those readers who may not have a clear idea of what exactly the executive director’s job is at the NEA, as opposed to that of President Dennis Van Roekel, I asked Wilson about this.

“The NEA is a hybrid of a union and a professional organization,” he explained. “We have two strong personalities, but we have different roles. ... The president is the chief spokesman, chief policymaker, and the face of the NEA.”

He added: “The executive director works in support of the president, advising on policy, takes on the job of chief of staff, managing all of the staff. ... I work at the direction of the NEA executive committee, led by the president. ... I’m also responsible for coalition-building, representing the organization externally, but generally the executive and president sit down and work that out.”

He added: “I’ve worked with three NEA presidents, and I’ve had a good partnership with all of them.” (Wilson also made an unsuccessful bid to become president in 1989, but lost to Keith Geiger.) “I’m kind of hitting my stride now, so I love changing jobs when you’re kind of at your peak, not to wait until you’re exhausted or burned out.”

For a little more history and background on John Wilson, a North Carolina native, check out this recent profile in the News & Observer newspaper of Raleigh, N.C.

Photo provided by the NEA.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.