A teacher was working in his classroom after classes at Wiley Elementary School in Raleigh. A child ran in the room with a panicked look on his face, unable to breathe.
The teacher quickly performed the Heimlich maneuver; a piece of hard candy flew out of the boy's mouth. The boy said thanks and left.
That teacher was John I. Wilson, who remembers the incident in the late 1970s because it's symbolic of the quiet, heroic acts teachers do every day.
"That," says Wilson, "is just who we are."
It's been nearly 18 years since Wilson has had his own classroom, but his heart is still there.
This month, Wilson marked his tenth anniversary as executive director of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, with 3.3 million members, 550 employees and a budget of $360 million.
The North Carolina native is on the front lines of the debate about how to rescue a public education system that lags behind those of many other countries. Wilson finds himself defending teachers as the national conversation swirls around underperforming schools, low test scores and bad apples.
Reform efforts are increasingly focused on firing unsuccessful teachers, and the recent documentary "Waiting for Superman" took aim at unions for protecting ineffective teachers.
"There's a lot of demonizing going on," said Wilson, 63, who splits his time between Washington and Raleigh.
"Our members care deeply about their students," he said. "They pull money out of their pocket. They'll do anything for their students to be successful."
Wilson was a special education teacher in Raleigh before he became, in his words, a rabble rouser.
Born in Burlington and raised in Raleigh, he knew early on he wanted to teach. He majored in education at Western Carolina University and had a full fellowship for a graduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill, where, after working with small groups of poor children, he wrote his master's thesis on the language development of disadvantaged first-graders.
His first real teaching job was at Enloe High School, where he had graduated in 1966. He loved the kids, he said, but "as a teacher I was thinking, gosh, it's so hard to make a difference once they get to high school."
So he moved down to sixth grade and later elementary school at Wiley, where he persuaded affluent families to get involved in the school, where many of the children came from housing projects.
He soon got involved with the politics of education. Before he was 30, he led a classroom teachers association. In 1981 he became president of the N.C. Association of Educators, the state affiliate of NEA. He became the association's chief lobbyist and executive director.
Wilson was the architect behind the NCAE's more aggressive political strategy.
The teachers turned to a familiar tool - the report card - to call out lawmakers who voted against their issues. Some legislators were termed friends of education, and others "needed improvement." The report card outraged some who thought it amounted to blackballing powerful legislators. The state school superintendent called it "an irresponsible and unwise attack." The head of another state employee association simply said: "John Wilson is crazy."
Looking back, he said, the strategy worked. Lawmakers didn't like seeing C's, D's and F's by their names. "I absolutely got their attention and they listened to me."
Wilson was making a name for himself. At one point, he led a march around the governor's mansion to protest a salary freeze during an economic downturn. Before the march, rumors spread that Gov. Jim Hunt planned to invite the teachers in for refreshments.
"I said, 'Not one teacher should cross that line to eat ice cream or drink lemonade,' " Wilson recalled. Only one did.
Pushing for pay
The march empowered the organization, said Karen Garr, a longtime friend who now is a regional director for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
"It marked the way NCAE was viewed and the way teachers viewed themselves as being able to do that kind of thing," Garr said.
Despite his strident reputation, Garr said, Wilson's preferred method "is not to attack when he can sit down to talk."
He came to win over Hunt years later.
"John I. has been one of the most effective pushers - I like to use that word, 'pushers' - for teachers and good teaching of anybody I've ever known," Hunt said last week.
Hunt said he would always remember the day Wilson walked into his office in 1996 and informed him that North Carolina had slipped to 43rd in the nation in teacher pay. "I was shocked," Hunt recalled.
Wilson then suggested that Hunt make that a major plank in his platform for his fourth term as governor. Hunt look at the cost and decided it could be done. "I decided it was the right thing to do for the state."
The campaign led teacher pay in North Carolina to move from 43rd to 23rd.
Wilson understood that salaries were an important part of attracting and retaining good teachers, said Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat whose campaigns Wilson managed.
Blue said Wilson was a "tremendous strategist and tactician" who saw the broader landscape about the changing nature of the teaching profession.
Along the way, Wilson was a big donor to state employee political action committees and Democratic candidates. State Board of Elections records show he contributed $101,000 to candidates and political action groups since 1990.
His giving got a boost this year, when he made a regular stop at a convenience store to buy $40 worth of lottery tickets. A longtime lottery supporter, he looked at it as a donation to education. Two months later, he checked the tickets and was told he had a winner. He had won $200,000.
He said he decided to split his winnings - half for pro-public school candidates and half for "acts of kindness." He has given to foundations, homeless people, laid-off teachers, a food bank and an elementary school in West Virginia.
At NEA, Wilson has championed a minimum salary of $40,000 for every teacher. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel calls Wilson a coalition builder.
"He has a real passion and understanding of education," Van Roekel said. "He still understands what it's like to be in a classroom with kids."
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