MEA-MFT celebrates 2013 Members of the Year
MEA-MFT annually honors three members of the year – members who are outstanding in their profession as well as their union work. The k-12 teacher of the year is honored at a separate event as part of the Montana Teacher of the Year program.
MEA-MFT Representative Assembly delegates celebrated the 2013 members of the year at a gala event in Helena April 5. Congratulations to these inspirational, dedicated members!
Alex Schaeffer: Education Support Professional of the Year
Alex Schaeffer’s first memory of school was missing the bus. He panicked. “My younger brother stood up and told me it’s OK,” he recalled. Now, as a tutor for the Kalispell Public Schools, Schaeffer said, “I look for the Alex that was me and tell him it’s OK.”
“Alex is in it for the children,” said Mike Thiel, as he introduced Schaeffer at the Members of the Year celebration. Thiel, president of the Kalispell Education Association, said he first met Schaeffer 10 years ago, when Schaeffer was “talking truth to power.”
A native of Whitefish, Schaeffer has been tutoring readers since he was in college. Today, he helps struggling readers in grades k-5, working with 62 students each day. “Being able to share the joy of reading and poetry and books — it’s the greatest job there is,” he said. “Many of these younger children have never seen a book before. Reading takes them to a new world.”
Learning to read can make or break a child’s success in school, Schaeffer explained. “Reading is how children judge themselves — those who can or can’t. Somebody needs to be there to remind them that we all learn at different rates. Struggling readers just need to know it’s going to be OK. That’s why I can’t wait to get back into the office every day.”
‘Foreign word’ When the Kalispell tutors debated forming a union in 1996, “I was the deciding vote,” Schaeffer said. “I did not know anything about a union. It was a foreign word to me. But I knew people were really hot about it.”
During those discussions, he said, “a man walked into the room with such integrity. That man was Jim McGarvey (former president of the Montana Federation of Teachers and vice president of MEA-MFT). You knew he was a man who spoke from the heart, who spoke truth. He dragged me into the union.”
The collectively bargained contract that resulted is what has kept the tutors around, he said. “It still connects students to tutors today — that thin, thin contract that makes the promise that we’ll keep going.”
Ever since that union vote, Schaeffer has been a union activist on all levels, local, state, and national. He is currently president of the 28-member Kalispell Tutors Association.
He has been a powerful voice for his fellow Education Support Professionals. When MEA-MFT launched the PASS program in 2003 to help ESPs meet the stringent standards of the No Child Left Behind Law, Schaeffer was recruited as a PASS trainer, a service he continues to provide.
“Montana is the only state that took a harsh law and provided professional training to everyone who was going to lose their job under the law, and it was MEA-MFT that did it,” Schaeffer said. “Five hundred people have now been through that training.”
Schaeffer told the crowd at the celebration that his father taught him “that our circumstance may not be perfect, but intention ought to be. He taught me to ask, ‘Who am I? Am I enough?’ If you’re going to stand for something, you’d better know why. Life is short, and there’s no greater time than today to stand up.”
Michael Hoffman: Public Employee Member of the Year
“Michael Hoffman is the quiet kind of leader who shows up every day and gets things done,” said MEA-MFT member Rich Aarstad, introducing Hoffman at the Members of the Year celebration.
Take the November 2012 election for example: Every Tuesday evening before the election, Hoffman showed up at the MEA-MFT office in Helena right after finishing work at the Jefferson County Planning Department.
Week after week, he helped with the MEA-MFT phone bank, making hundreds of calls to fellow members, asking them to support Denise Juneau and Steve Bullock.
“Michael gets what our union is about,” Aarstad said. “It’s about all of us, all the parts.”
On the job training: Hoffman grew up in Helena. He served in the Air Force for four years, then worked for the Helena Housing Authority, doing maintenance work on low-income housing. “That’s when I came to learn about the needs of those folks and how hard they struggled,” he said.
During those years, Hoffman also worked evenings and weekends for a survey firm to supplement his income and support his young family. It turned out to be good training for his next career move: When the assistant planner job opened up at Jefferson County, Hoffman decided to apply for it. “Jump into the swimming pool and start swimming,” he laughed. “I like public service.”
As assistant planner, Hoffman works on land use issues, including subdivisions and commercial and industrial development. “It’s about the way the county grows in the future, making sure the public has input,” he said.
“It can be controversial. We work with both opponents and proponents of growth. Both sides are very passionate. They don’t always see eye to eye. I help them try to come to consensus.”
‘Wide open, full-throttle’: To Hoffman, being an MEA-MFT member means “being part of a larger family of professionals who have decades of combined knowledge and experience. It’s a network of people you can tap into to help with problems.” He serves as vice president of his local, the Federation of Jefferson County Public Employees.
MEA-MFT’s advocacy for public employees “is critical, especially now,” he said. “Having seen first-hand the advocacy, hard work, and professional pride MEA-MFT staff and leaders take in their work — it’s an eye-opener.”
Noting the national attack on unions, Hoffman said, “I could really relate to what happened in Wisconsin. I knew we needed to stand up and fight. We’re seeing some folks trying to tear us apart. Never before have we seen such attacks on our retirements, our salaries. It’s wide open, full-throttle attacks on public institutions. It’s all about privatizing public institutions for profit.”
Hoffman saw the dangers of privatization while working at the Helena Housing Authority. “Any time we had to contract something out, you almost had to double the cost,” he said. “You usually didn’t get the quality of work with a private contractor, and the cost to taxpayer was almost a third again higher.”
Those issues, combined with Steve Bullock’s fight against dark money, Denise Juneau’s fight on No Child Left Behind, and Linda McCulloch’s fight to preserve Election Day voter registration are what prompted him to devote so much time and energy to help elect those candidates, he said. “I told people on the phones, ‘I’m conservative. But look at what the opposition has to offer.’”
Hoffman told the crowd at the celebration, “I couldn’t be more proud than to be part of the union. I strongly encourage each member here tonight to get involved and stay involved. I was a couch potato myself for many years. Times have changed. The fight continues. We have a long way to go.”
Marilyn Besich: Faculty Member of the Year
“If Marilyn Besich is in a room and you don’t know she’s there, you might not be in the same room,” said MEA-MFT Field Consultant Tom Burgess as he introduced Besich at the Members of the Year celebration.
With her background in businesses both small and large, Burgess said, “Marilyn could have easily gone down the corporate road.”
Instead, Besich chose to teach at the Great Falls College (formerly the College of Technology), where she serves as program director for the Business Administration Department, teaching management and entrepreneurship.
For 22 years, she has given Montanans the skills to launch their own careers in business. Students often come back after graduating and tell her how valuable their training was.
Besich’s work boosts Montana’s economy as well as her students’ futures. “Even in bad economic times, business needs good managers and smart workers,” she said. She sees this as “a time in our economy when we need entrepreneurship more than ever.”
Along with teaching, Besich has worked with the Montana Arts Council, helping teach artists how to market their art. “It’s rewarding to help people in other fields get into running a business,” she said. “I like stretching out of my business world and into the arts, where artists are struggling to make a living. Artists aren’t all that fond of business — we’ve had to sell them on the idea.”
Union roots: Besich was born and raised in Butte. Her parents, also Butte natives, were staunch union supporters. Other family members worked for the copper company. “All my life I’ve sort of been under that (union) umbrella,” she said.
Her father, who was born in 1899, lived in Butte when unions were “growing and developing and struggling,” Besich said. The stories he told her of fires in the mines and other struggles of working people shaped her world view for life.
Besich was in grade school when workers at the Anaconda Company went on a nine-month strike in the 1960s. “I remember my mom packing two lunches, one for me and one for some other kid whose dad was on strike,” she said.
“I grew up on the spirit of collaboration, cooperation, and unity. Those values stay with you.”
Along her career path, Besich earned bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in business and education; had her own family; and worked for Wendt Advertising in Great Falls and other companies.
She began teaching at the Great Falls College of Technology in 1992. Since 1994, she has been a leader in her MEA-MFT local, the Vocational Technical Educators of Montana (VTEM), a union that spans three campuses statewide. As the current president of VTEM, she also serves on MEA-MFT’s Coalition of Union Faculty (CUF).
“It’s very inspiring to me to see the group (CUF) really start to flourish,” she said. “It has really started to pick up some momentum. Higher education members of MEA-MFT are more unified now than ever.”