We got the chance to interview outgoing KNEA President Mark Farr, about his tenure as KNEA President and what's next for him after he steps down in about four months.
Why did you initially get involved with KNEA leadership?
Well, that goes back a few years. Back when I was a high school science teacher at Nickerson High School, focusing on my students and my classroom. I wasn't involved in my association other than paying my dues.
A colleague I respected at Nickerson High School and was a teacher of mine while I attended NHS said, "Would you like to go to a meeting with me?"
And that was the first step, the invite to attend a meeting, and then it was another invite when Sherri Yourdon said, "You know, we need your help on our negotiations team. We need a numbers person."
So, I joined our negotiations team and, then it was, "You have to think about running to serve on the Kansas NEA Resolutions Commission."
And then it was a local officer position, after that.
But it was an invitation from someone that was involved in our association, initially. The ask was to help our local association. Sherri provided the necessary support for me to complete the task. As my involvement in the association increased, my commitment to advocate for students and the profession grew.
What are you most proud of from your time in KNEA Leadership?
I've been on the KNEA board for 19 years. I started as the board member representing my UniServ. I then ran for NEA director and was elected to the NEA Board of Directors. As a member of the NEA Board, you continued to serve on the Kansas NEA Board as well.
Then secretary-treasurer, vice president, and eventually serving as the Kansas NEA President. When my term is done, I will have been president for seven years. I'm proud to say our association is as strong now as when I took over as president.
We've endured many attacks, not just during my time as president but over the last two decades. We faced a significant recession, the Brownback administration's continued attack on public education, the loss of due process, and ongoing attacks on the Professional Negotiations Act (PNA). All of those challenges came about during my term as an officer. Through members' collective action and our members' work across the state, Kansas NEA and UTW continue to be an organization that advocates for our students, our members, and our profession. The membership growth that we're seeing affirms that our members and potential members see us as relevant and will continue to join us to have that voice to address their working conditions and our students' learning conditions, most importantly.
Is there anything that, in hindsight, you wish you would have done differently?
I try not to look back and think about what else could have been done. I try to make the best decisions based on the information we have and move forward with that decision.
So, I haven't spent time looking back, saying, "What if?" I spent my time looking forward, asking, "What else do we have to do?" And we still have a lot to do. We have to restore due process for all Kansas educators.
Some districts have it built into their negotiated agreement, but not all districts have, and it doesn't look the same everywhere. There are still things that we need to accomplish. We have a lot of work yet to do, but we have more members engaged today than we have in 20 or 30 years.
What are you focused on right now as you finish up your tenure as KNEA President?
Right now, we're focused on the KNEA election and how we will hold a virtual KNEA Representative Assembly. We know our virtual representative assembly has to look different than a face-to-face RA. So, we're working through what those details.
We've selected the platform that we're going to use because it is a pretty interactive platform. We believe if we're going to keep our delegates engaged virtually, there has to be some interactivity. It can't be a sit-and-get. The board took action to recommend changes to the Kansas NEA RA Delegates. The proposal will establish deadlines for new business items, constitutional amendments, and resolutions. The deadlines will be in front of the RA to move the business forward in a virtual setting.
It's not going to be the same as it is face-to-face, but we want to have that interaction. We want our delegates to have an opportunity to hear and debate the issues, but we're going to have to do it in a slightly different format.
What is next for you after you step down as KNEA President?
I'll be a high school science teacher. I'm excited to return to the classroom, and I've missed teaching and working with students.
This July will be nine years out of the classroom, and many things have changed in nine years. I have some learning to do, but I had an opportunity the other day to do a 15-minute lesson with a physics class, and it showed me that I miss working with kids. It was just a simple problem-solving activity, but seeing the wheels spin, seeing the "light bulb moment when the students solved my challenge was exciting. I miss that interaction with students. I truly miss working with students.
Once my term is complete, my focus is going to be on my students and my classroom.
Any final remarks that you would like to share with members?
Together, we have a stronger voice. The strength of Kansas NEA and United Teachers of Wichita is our members. We depend on every member we have in UTW and throughout the state to use their voices to advocate for Kansas students and Kansas educators. Together as one, we have that stronger voice. We're able to accomplish more when we have active and engaged members across the state. It can't just be the leadership at KNEA or the leadership at United Teachers of Wichita. It has to be active and engaged members advocating for our students and our profession.
We'd like to give a huge thanks to Mark for agreeing to this interview and especially for all of his hard work as KNEA President. We wish him the best as he returns to the classroom, and we have no doubt that with the help of his local association, he will transition easily back to teaching.