Rev. Dr. James Dixon, president of the NAACP Houston Branch, speaks during the Friday, March 3, 2023 rally protesting TEA’s attempt to takeover HISD. Credit: Aswad Walker

Jackie Anderson is one of the most recognizable faces at the front of education advocacy in Houston.

Anderson is the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and is a retired educator with more than 30 years of experience working in special education.

She’s been an active member of the union and has worked her way up in the organization before finally becoming the Houston Federation of Teachers’ first African-American president to be elected in the role.

The Houston native attended public school in the North Forest School District (now part of HISD) and graduated from Texas Southern University, before starting her journey in education.

She spoke with the Defender to talk about her past as an educator, current challenges she’s facing in her leadership role, and her legacy.

Defender: What inspired you to be an educator?

Anderson: When I was a little girl, I used to play school before I was old enough to even go to school. I was always a teacher in my heart, even though I tried to deny it. When I went to college, I didn’t go into education. I went to get a degree in psychology and after I got my bachelor’s degree, I didn’t get my masters. I started teaching and I taught for 33 years. I taught for 10 years in Humble and the other 23 years in Houston and finished my career here.

Defender: How was your experience like as an educator at that time?

Anderson: I was a special education teacher. I taught what they called “BSS,” which is Behavioral Support Services. I worked with students who had emotional disabilities and students who needed behavioral support. I really enjoyed teaching, not so much the bureaucracy that you see in education today. We used to be able to be creative with students and let them blossom. I saw a deterioration of that joy that was being taken away from students and how you were able to teach them. It makes me sad when I hear about the debates about curriculum, using technology in the classroom all day. That’s not teaching to me.

Defender: What does being a teacher mean to you?

Anderson: Teaching is allowing students to direct their path. Allowing them to process and problem solve and think creatively. It’s about finding ways to assess students without all of these standardized tests. You can still access what they’ve learned by allowing them to demonstrate what they’ve learned in creative ways. It’s like if you’re not testing students, people think you aren’t teaching, and that’s not true. I think it’s better to have students demonstrate their knowledge through project portfolios. The same way they do with the IB concept of teaching. They don’t have to take a test to tell you they’ve mastered at something. I’m not saying they shouldn’t test in some parts of their learning, but I don’t think it should be the only way to determine the academic success of a child.

Defender: What year did you join the labor movement? Why did you want to be involved?

Anderson: I joined the labor movement when I first entered into HISD in 1998. When I got into HISD, the Houston Federation of Teachers’ president was Gayle Fallon. So, when I was in Humble, they didn’t have a labor union as powerful as Houston Federation of Teachers. I never had any idea that I would be president, but I would always look at her on TV standing up for the rights of teachers, making sure that their voices were heard. As soon as I got to HISD, I joined the Houston Federation of Teachers. I became a board member, I was a building co-steward, worked my way up as the secretary of treasurer and then as president. The union made it a lot easier for me to feel strong and empowered, because I had those members behind me. I wasn’t speaking alone or for myself. That’s why I have so much respect for labor.

Defender: You are the first African American president for the Houston Federation of Teachers? How does that make you feel?

Anderson: At first, it didn’t even ring to me until someone else told me when I was elected. Now, we are celebrating our 50th year. I’m really thinking maybe this should have happened a long time ago. Why did it take 50 years? But I’m still honored that the members and the board at that time had the confidence in me to think that I could continue to move the union forward.

Defender: What are some of the biggest challenges you are facing as a leader right now?

Anderson: It seems that we have so much push back. The union is labeled as troublemakers, as people who are fighting for what’s wrong with education. We should be fighting for the equal rights of people, we should be fighting for the rights of trans kids, we should be fighting for the truth to be told about history. When we do speak up about these, we are labeled as troublemakers and that’s ridiculous. If the legislature would do what’s right, unions wouldn’t exist. Now we are fighting about these school vouchers because they aren’t telling the truth. An 8,000 voucher? You can’t go to school for $8,000. The average cost is $25,000. So, who are the vouchers actually helping? People who already have their kids in private schools, they’re going to get the discount, while the money gets pulled from public school funding. And public schools are already underfunded. The biggest challenge is educating our people, so when they hear these things, they know how to question it. All these things being told are lies wrapped in pretty packaging. They are spending all their time fighting trans kids, supporting vouchers, but what about these guns that you refuse to put any kind of safety measure on? When we were pushing for a special session to raise the age, and require background checks, we were labeled as wrong, and that we were trying to take people’s guns. That’s not what we said.

Defender: Years from now, what would you want your legacy to be?

Anderson: I started work on many things and with HFT, we started our first [education training] program in collaboration with the University of Houston and HISD, so that our teacher aides can get their degrees through a partnership with the UH. I think we have 12 candidates this year. I would like my legacy to be that through the Houston Federation of Teachers and partnerships with our school district, that we have strengthened the profession. That we have earned and gained respect for our professionals. That we are treated like the professionals that we are and not as the enemy. Thank goodness that parents are considering us to be team members, especially during COVID. I think it changed their mindset on the role educators play in their children’s lives. I want people to realize that we make great partners. We want what’s best for our children and educators. We can change the culture of education. We need our teachers paid, we need our support staff paid, we need to provide funding our kids need, and we need to make a pleasant learning environment for our students. I hope I’m beginning to change that narrative.

Defender: You’ve been very vocal about TEA’s decision to take over Houston ISD. With less than a month away until the elected school board officials step down, how will Houston Teachers Union work with the appointed members to improve student outcomes?

Anderson: I went to school in Houston. Graduated from Texas Southern University, and went on to work on my teacher’s certificate at the University of Houston. To take it back, I went to North Forest School District, but now it’s HISD. I guess that’s the reason why this [HISD] takeover means so much to me because I was living in the district when the TEA closed the North Forest School District and gave it to HISD. Now, here I am again in the district that TEA is taking over. We still feel that any removal of our elected board is a travesty and an assault on democracy. Unions fight for democracy every single day. Even though this has happened, we still know that the bottom line is our children. You can’t help children without helping teacher, because the teacher’s learning conditions are the children’s learning conditions. We stand by to do whatever we can to work in partnership with whoever is in charge of HISD. We have to work together if we’re going to help our children.

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Laura OnyenehoEducation Reporter

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...