"You cannot scare a Utah teacher," said Eskelsen, herself a former UEA president and Utah teacher. "We have survived every bad idea, every bad reform that anyone has ever come up with. We don't care if it's a democrat or republican that proposes something. If it's a good idea, we'll take it, and if it's a bad idea we'll fight it."
Eskelsen, one of the opening speakers at the two-day convention, said that there are many who don't like the power teachers unions hold. They don't like when unions win fights such as the one over private school vouchers in Utah several years ago, she said. But she said teachers are out to help children, and by coming together they can make a big difference.
"None of us got into this business to be rich and famous, but when you put 3 million good people, educators all coming together, 3 million people can pitch in a little bit of money and send it to Utah to fight something like that voucher law," Eskelsen said, referring to the number of NEA members across the country and the money the NEA put toward fighting vouchers in Utah.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, UEA president, took on a similar theme in her speech. She said without the UEA, education in Utah would likely look very different than it does now. She envisioned class sizes twice as large, teacher pay based entirely on tests scores, public teacher effectiveness rankings, vouchers, and a dearth of people entering the teaching profession.
"I think we've seen attacks across the country on teachers unions," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said of her speech after giving it. "I think based on the anti-teacher rhetoric we're hearing, it's something we need to be aware of."
Last year, Wisconsin passed a law to weaken the collective bargaining rights of its public employees, and more recently, a teacher's strike in Chicago made national news, drawing criticism from many.
Contacted after the speeches, Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, which fought for vouchers, said the UEA often uses its convention to inspire fear, uncertainty and doubt in its members. She said, in reality, everyone supports and appreciates quality teachers.
"The union uses this opportunity to brow beat good teachers into thinking they're under appreciated," Clark said. "The union stands in the way of allowing good teachers to do what they do best, which is teach kids."
Teachers who attended the convention, however, said Eskelsen and Gallagher-Fishbaugh were spot on.
Anna Davis, a teacher at Holt Elementary in Clearfield, said teachers do their best under sometimes difficult circumstances.
"We're there because we care about those children and give everything we have," Davis said, "and it's very frustrating to be told we're lazy and don't care about our children and our classes when we do our best every day. We have to stand together."
Tom Marcheschi, a counselor at Bonneville High in Ogden, said everyone seems to have an opinion about how to improve education, but educators, the true experts, aren't asked often enough for their thoughts.
"It's a voice that needs to be heard," Marcheschi said.
And Liz Gifford, a teacher at Hillsdale Elementary in West Valley City, said it was nice to hear union leaders acknowledge that it's important to teach the whole child, not just focus on test scores.
Later in the day, Gov. Gary Herbert also expressed his appreciation for teachers, thanking them for their service in a speech. He talked about the state goal of having 66 percent of Utah adults hold post-secondary degrees or certificates by 2020. He said he plans to continue to invest in education by growing the economy, rather than raising taxes or taking money from other parts of the state budget.
The UEA's PAC has endorsed Herbert for governor.
"I'm here to assure you and reassure you that as teachers, the public at large and legislators and others think you're wonderful people doing a great job," Herbert said.