From Mentors to Members

Meet NJEA President Sean M. Spiller

By Patrick Rumaker, NJEA Review editor

Sean M. Spiller’s path to the classroom and to union leadership is not the typical story of a youngster who dreamed throughout his childhood of becoming a teacher. His future could have taken any one of several paths: sports writer, professional hockey player, editor, biologist or psychologist.

But having a mother who was a teacher in Jamaica and a grandfather who was a pivotal and historic figure in the New Zealand’s union movement likely meant that education and union leadership were already imprinted on his DNA.

Spiller’s journey to the classroom and association leadership traverses a hockey rink and a high-pressure newsroom and features a host of mentors who knew his potential.

An expansive worldview from the start

Spiller and his brother Richard were born in Jamaica to a Jamaican mother, Hyacinth, and Kiwi (New Zealand) father, Tom. Spiller’s parents had met during graduate school in Australia. His father drove a bus to help fund his graduate studies in engineering and his mother showed up one day as a passenger.

Spiller, who later would first meet his own wife on a bus, quips, “He literally picked her up!”

With their parents’ love of travel, adventure, and learning as much as possible about the world, Spiller and his brother spent their toddlerhood in various locales—leaving them with vague memories of living in Jamaica, Venezuela, and Rockaway, Queens before the family settled in Montville, New Jersey. Their moves and travels across the globe instilled in Spiller a global experience and a macro perspective. 

Spiller with his parents and brother. From left: Richard, Hyacinth, Sean, and Tom Spiller.

Spiller explains that his paternal grandfather in New Zealand, named Hubert Spiller but commonly known as Tom, was a lifelong labor and human rights activist whose life is chronicled in news accounts and documentaries there. As a young man, the elder Tom Spiller joined the International Brigades and fought against the fascist forces of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. After the war, the elder Spiller went on to become an official in the New Zealand’s Tramways Union, ultimately serving as its president.

“My father would tell me that his father was the kind of guy who would put out an actual soapbox and stand on it to rally the people to action,” Spiller says.

Spiller’s own father worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as a staff services engineer at Newark Airport, where he was often frustrated that he couldn’t convince his engineering colleagues to form a union. But Spiller notes that his father otherwise loved his job; he reveled in the high-level math and the grand scale of his tasks and loved reporting to work each day. Their father’s role at the airport often enabled Spiller and his brother, in their pre-9/11 childhoods, to meet the pilots in the cockpit to “help” fly the plane during their annual family visits to Jamaica and their occasional family visits to New Zealand.

While his mother was a mathematics and geography teacher in Jamaica, in the U.S. she was a stay-at-home parent until she took a job as a claims examiner with Chubb. Hyacinth Spiller had a sharp analytical mind and a natural understanding of people and the world, making her a wonderful conversationalist and deeply adored by her sons. Her teaching past, however, was more often than not a reason why the young Spiller and his brother would avoid asking her questions about their homework—especially math.

“If we had a math question, Mom was the last option!” Spiller laughs. “We just wanted the answer and we knew if we went to our mom, we were getting the full lesson!”

Spiller with his mother, Hyacinth, at President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

On the ice

Spiller graduated from Rutgers College, focusing on psychology and biology, but it was his love of sports in general, and hockey in particular, that led to his first job after college and indirectly to his future as an educator and leader.

While Spiller was eager to play any sport, he loved hockey from his first skate with his father and brother.  He loved the challenge of the game and the exhilarating pace, as well as the toughness it required to play despite blood and injury. Good players are smart, agile, gritty and ready.

Spiller with his son, Tyson, on the ice.

“It demands a strength of character of every player,” Spiller explains, “and it is the epitome of a team sport. Everyone has to constantly work together, in harmony, to achieve the team’s goal and protect each other.” 

While he was focused on the game and his personal growth, he never could have seen how this training would translate so exactly to his work in NJEA and leadership—the pace, the resilience, the focus, and the teamwork necessary for union work are just as thrilling for Spiller.

At Rutgers, Spiller made the team and was in his glory. He recalls a crossroads coming after a game at the end of his freshman year, when an assistant coach was reviewing his playing.

“In essence, he wanted me to feed the puck to my teammate more, who had been scoring. I remember his words as, ‘Know your role.’” While this was meant to encourage Spiller to assist, he translated it differently. “I knew who I was. I was meant to be a goal-scorer. I was meant to be the captain. I knew my role. He didn’t, and I was going to prove to him what it was.”

Team captain, editor, writer, teacher

By his junior year, Spiller was the leading scorer and captain of the Rutgers University ice hockey team. He would finish his career having won two championships, wearing the ‘C’ for two years, and leading in team points for his final two years as a Scarlet Knight. His head coach during all that time, Mike DeAngelis, was, and still is, a high school science teacher. Through Spiller’s shared experiences with DeAngelis, the seeds were planted for Spiller’s future career.

“Mike was absolutely the most influential person in my life at the time besides my parents,” Spiller says.

DeAngelis, who now teaches in West Orange, would often talk with the hockey team about his life as a science teacher.

“You’re a college kid, but you’re listening,” Spiller says. “I’d be thinking, ‘This guy is kind of like me—he’s a science guy, he’s doing this kind of work, he’s talking about how much fun he has teaching these kids.’ I really looked up to him, so the possibility of being a teacher was always there for me.”

But hockey came first.

Spiller took a shot at minor league hockey. That didn’t lead to a career on the ice, but it did land him an internship with hockey and New York City Subway historian Stan Fischler. With Fischler, he not only learned more about writing, editing, and sports reporting, he earned a listing as research editor for Fischler’s book, The Subway: A Trip Through Time on New York’s Rapid Transit.

Spiller with his family, from left: Tyson, Sean, Lauren, and Brody Spiller.

Spiller’s internship with Fischler led to a job as assistant sports editor for the Associated Press, covering major league baseball. The job was exciting—monitoring up to six games simultaneously and constantly talking on the phone with the reporters on-site at each of those games, and, at the end of each game, getting the story on the wire within seconds of the last out.

Again, Spiller reveled in the pace, the stakes, the people, and the content of the work. But the hours were terrible—days began at 5 p.m., often going until 2 or 3 the next morning. The excitement of hanging out regularly with professional baseball players was offset by never being on the same schedule as friends and family.

“I had that moment when I thought, ‘Man, what would I really like to do?’” Spiller remembers. He thought about his role models: his mother, his coach. Both educators. “Then I thought, ‘Well, I know Mike DeAngelis was a great coach for me and he was a great teacher—I’d like to do that!’ That’s why I went back to Rutgers and shifted my focus to education.”

Spiller speaking at the Garden State Equality Pride Walk on June 13, 2021, with Out Montclair, also attended by Gov. Phil Murphy. Photographer/NJ Governor’s Office

Unintentional negotiations

Long before Spiller even imagined he would become involved in a union, let alone a statewide president, he inadvertently engaged in his first round of negotiations. Graduating midyear from Rutgers’ education program, Spiller began to look for his first job—likely not fully appreciating at the time the high demand for high school science teachers who can coach. He quickly lined up interviews in five school districts.

The first was in Kinnelon, where an interview with the principal swiftly moved into a meeting with the superintendent. Before he knew it, he was being offered a job.

“I sat there, totally silent. I didn’t know what to say because the only thing going through my mind was that I had four other districts that were yet to interview me,” Spiller remembers. “So I didn’t say a word; I was in shock.”

The silence paid off—the superintendent quickly offered to put him on the second rather than first step of the guide.

“That was my first negotiation, and I didn’t even know I was doing it,” Spiller quips.

Because he had already made the commitment to interview with the other four districts, he kept his appointments, but ultimately took the job in Kinnelon. He spent that first year working under an emergency certification, teaching honors physics, chemistry, and biochemistry while serving as head hockey coach and as an assistant coach for lacrosse. Again a rookie, rushing from post to post, he found it challenging and intense, but working with his students and players was incredibly rewarding.

Spiller shared his office with another science teacher, Fred Vafaie, hired in the same year, but with several more years of experience as a teacher and NJEA member.

“Fred was super pro-union, and from Day One he was in my ear saying, ‘Go talk to the union rep—tell him this, show him that!’ He was a veteran teacher, so he knew the value of the association, and he knew how it could help as a resource, support structure, and much more.”

“Of course, like most new teachers, I remember thinking, ‘I’m just trying to survive!’” Spiller said.

A few years later, both Spiller and Vafaie moved on to Wayne Township. Now Spiller could see what Vafaie had said about the association, and he was ready to get involved. He approached Eileen Bannat Hayes, who was Wayne Education Association (WEA) president at the time and offered to help with anything the association needed. Hayes didn’t hesitate to take Spiller up on the offer.

It wasn’t long before Spiller was an officer in WEA. By 2007, with Hayes’ and the whole local association leadership’s enthusiastic support, Spiller became WEA president.

Now NJEA President Sean M. Spiller and then NJEA President Marie Blistan confer at the 2017 NEA Representative Assembly.

Learning the ropes of being a leader

Along the way to becoming WEA president, Spiller served as the local association’s representative to the Passaic County Education Association (PCEA), taking a position on its executive board in 2005. There he met one of his most important mentors, PCEA President Joe Cheff.

“I’ve always had great mentors and supporters, but I would say quite simply that I would not be sitting in this position as the incoming president of NJEA without Joe Cheff,” Spiller says.

Mr. Cheff—as Spiller has always addressed him—impressed upon Spiller the importance of strong relationships with the entire education stakeholder community including local, county, and state association members and leaders, parents, mayors, town council members, state and federal lawmakers, freeholders (now county commissioners), community organizations, and others.

“Joe really opened me up to the importance of political engagement, how to interact with decision-makers, and why politics matter,” Spiller says. “And he took me right in. He showed me everything. It’s a real testament to him that he was always looking to grow new leaders and was never threatened by it. He was always inclusive and always willing to help. He is phenomenal.”

Spiller represented PCEA on the NJEA Congressional Contact Committee. NJEA President Barbara Keshishian appointed Spiller to chair the committee. As chair, Spiller worked closely with now retired NJEA lobbyist Wayne Dibofsky, who recognized Spiller’s leadership potential. Amidst several of their countless political conversations, Dibofsky encouraged Spiller to think seriously about his long-term future in NJEA, either as a staff member or in association leadership. Even then, Spiller was confident that association governance was the direction he wanted to go.

A justice-centered union

Spiller says it is an honor to follow in NJEA President Marie Blistan’s footsteps.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with Marie Blistan,” Spiller says. “She is the epitome of leadership and work-ethic. I’ve grown so much over the past eight years, brainstorming with her and using her example to reflect about my own leadership. She’s a master class. And she’s a friend.” 

Spiller credits Blistan with prioritizing racial, social and educational justice. As an African American, Spiller notes the value of Blistan’s role as a vocal white ally in the cause of anti-racism. Because of the history of systemic racism in the U.S., having a white leader center racial justice work in the union’s mission sends a strong message that this is not just an issue for people of color.

Beginning with NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer, NJEA presidents have selected a theme for the NJEA Convention and to represent their term. Spiller has chosen “Learning. Equity. Justice.”

“It would be a disservice to our members to say, ‘We’ve done ‘justice’ under President Blistan. Let’s move on.’ No. This is generational work,” Spiller says. “As a union, justice is what we are about. Justice for the individual worker in the face of powerful employers, justice for our schools to have the resources to help all those who walk in the door, justice for students and families so all communities have access to the tools and opportunities for success. We stand for justice—justice in education and in our society.”

The theme encompasses all of NJEA’s work, whether it is the full reopening of schools in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, the traditional bread-and-butter issues such collective bargaining, contract enforcement, and working conditions, or if we are looking at our role in preserving our democracy in these uncertain times.

“Yes, we are advocating for our members’ health and safety, their working conditions and student learning conditions, but I think that even more broadly—when we’re seeing forces around the nation that are fighting to stop us from teaching the truth or forces that are trying to erode democracy—we have to hold the line,” Spiller says. “Public education is the defender of democracy, and we as a union have an oversized role to play, especially at this moment in time, to make sure that we’re here for our kids, our families, our neighbors and our nation.”

In 2017, when Spiller and the NJEA officers from
2017-21 were inducted into office by Becky Pringle, who was then NEA vice president. From left: Spiller, Marie Blistan, now NEA President Becky Pringle and Steve Beatty.

Amplifying the voice and power of each member

Spiller believes in the power of NJEA to amplify the voices and values of its members.

“Whatever it is that you’re passionate about, the union can be the place for you to exercise and leverage your power. You are part of a powerful collective group that can make a difference on so many important issues,” Spiller says. “You want to do something that matters to you? The union is the way to do it. We can train you in organizing. We can help connect you to others who think like you. The union can help you move our world forward.”

And as an association, it starts with listening.

That’s why, in the past year, and particularly over this past summer, an NJEA initiative called 200K Conversations has trained a cadre of members to make phone calls to every member of the association—all 200,000 members. At its core, 200K Conversations is about engaging NJEA members, listening to their stories, and empowering all members to find their spaces in the union and their voices. By doing so, we can all learn from each other’s experiences, connect around our areas of passion, and build a stronger, more inclusive association.

Challenges and opportunities

Spiller notes that for the last 10 years NJEA has been engaged in undoing the damage done to public education and to the livelihoods of NJEA members by Gov. Chris Christie. Adding that through long-term advocacy and member engagement, the association successfully addressed many of those issues, such as Ch. 78, Job Justice for educational support professionals, school funding and respect for educators. He is mindful of the difference it makes when there is a strong relationship with pro-public education lawmakers.

“I watched as a local leader, the NJEA presidency of Joyce Powell during the Corzine administration and their collaboration,” Spiller recalls. “Then I watched our world change when Chris Christie was elected governor and what that meant with regard to how our members were treated and our profession characterized. I can only imagine the frustration during the presidency of Barbara Keshishian, and I know the challenges Wendell Steinhauer faced during my own time as an officer.”

With a Murphy administration, we’re no longer constantly in defense posture, Spiller points out, but instead moving our pro-public education vision forward.

“My hope is that, with a Biden presidency and, hopefully, a Murphy reelection, we will be dealing with two friends of education in two of the highest positions of power,” Spiller says. “That’s a real opportunity.”

But as the grandson of a man who engaged in hand-to-hand combat to fight fascism in 1930s Spain, Spiller recognizes the fragility of democracy. He understands that while there is great opportunity, we are also at a time of great risk to our nation’s future.

“We’re not just seeing a threat to unions, but to our democracy at its core,” Spiller warns. “That is what’s at stake. If we’re not in a real democracy, think about what teaching looks like in dictatorships—talk about not teaching the truth, or what you get in trouble for saying or doing. That’s what’s on the line.”

Nonetheless, Spiller is optimistic, particularly with a Murphy administration in New Jersey and a Biden administration in Washington.

“Hopefully, after the upcoming election we will be working with leaders who fundamentally support public education and who are believers in a free democracy,” Spiller says. “We can share our vision and priorities, and work together for a better future for us all through education and action. We can continue to push toward a more perfect union and to uphold the tenets of our founding documents. That’s the opportunity. I see so much potential.”

He includes in that field of partners and leaders, the powerful National Education Association (NEA).

“We’ve got strong leadership at NEA,” Spiller says. “I’m excited about working with NEA President Becky Pringle. She’s a woman of vision and guts, and I really see NEA leaning into the power of the 3-million-member NEA and our role in the nation.”

Spiller speaking at the Jack Bertolino NJEA Summer Leadership Conference in August 2013.

No longer “the only one”

In NJEA’s nearly 167-year history, Spiller is only the second NJEA president who is African American, and the first African American man to serve in the position. He follows in the footsteps of Judi Owens who was elected NJEA president in 1975.

Consequently, for the first time in NJEA history, with the election of Robertson, two of the association’s three statewide officers are persons of color. Spiller recognizes that this distinction comes later than it should have in NJEA’s history and is a function of broader issues around racial, social and economic justice.

“When you look at our system of education in New Jersey, we’re one of the most diverse states in the nation, and we are one of the most segregated states in the nation. That is why I say that there are two possible experiences that a child of color might have in New Jersey,” Spiller says.

Growing up in Montville, Spiller was accustomed to being one of only a few African Americans in his school and in his neighborhood. While his mother was a teacher, in his entire schooling he did not have a single teacher who looked like him or shared his background.

“We always talk about why it is so important for children of all races to see persons of color in positions of authority and for students of color to see someone like themselves on more than a rare occasion,” Spiller says. “My road to teaching was unconventional. But by the time I was in Kinnelon, and then in Wayne, I felt the need to seek out the students of color, or my one or two colleagues of color as I walked through the halls. We’d exchange a nod, just to say, ‘I see you. We’re here. We’re good.’ Supportive educators in general are so important, but it is still also important to see those who look like you achieving success, and success in positions that you may see yourself in one day. I was fortunate to have family and friends to look to, but seeing that diversity as a child in the teachers you look up to is also important.”

Spiller is quick to add his gratitude for the educators he was fortunate enough to encounter as a child.

“I credit the educators I had for instilling a sense of confidence in me,” Spiller says. “They always made me feel like I could do anything I set my mind to. And they, like my mentors who have helped me along this path, were there to support me.”

Husband and father

NJEA president isn’t Spiller’s only role. He is also a husband and father. Spiller’s wife, Lauren, is an English language arts teacher at Anthony Wayne Middle School in Wayne Township, the same district where Spiller is on leave from his position as a Biology teacher at Wayne Valley High School. They have two sons: Tyson, 3, and Brody, 1.

Like father, like son, Spiller met his wife on a bus.

“I didn’t make a good first impression,” Sean laughs.

As Sean tells the story—which he says will vary from Lauren’s telling—they met while chaperoning a trip with the National Honor Society. Lauren’s father, Keith Parian, who was also a teacher at Wayne Valley High School, was adviser to the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society. Spiller was seated on the bus with a student considering her college options at Rutgers University. She was considering Douglass College.

“Absolutely not,” Spiller proudly exclaimed as an RC graduate. “You need to go to Rutgers College!”

Spiller said Lauren, a proud Douglass graduate, took issue. She wasted no time putting her future husband in his place as she expounded on the virtues of Douglass.

“I smile looking back,” says Spiller. “We were, or rather are, both proud Rutgers graduates, and there we were advocating for our respective schools. Of course, I could only end up marrying someone who could strongly make a point and who would show passion for her convictions. So, it couldn’t have been a better start.”

NJEA Vice President Steve Beatty, NJEA President Sean M. Spiller and NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson.
Photo by John O’Boyle

A strong leadership team

Spiller is especially looking forward to working with his fellow officers: NJEA Vice President Steve Beatty and NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson.

“Steve is really talented and, candidly, he’s a lot of fun to work with!” Spiller says. “It’s because Steve is wired to connect with people. His outreach is exemplary and he’s a passionate advocate. He is a focal point of our 200k member outreach work and really enjoys every conversation.”

With Robertson having recently served as president of the Montclair Education Association, Spiller has had the opportunity to work with her both as a union leader in NJEA and in his role as a councilman and mayor in Montclair.

“To hear Petal speak is to know her. She is dynamic, confident and faces things head on.” Spiller also respects her tenacity: “Petal does not allow fear to interfere; she will speak up and speak out where there is injustice.”

Spiller reflects on his debates with Blistan over their years serving together in NJEA leadership as he considers working with the team ahead.

“It’s a cornerstone of the work: debating our possible moves, trying to poke holes in each other’s position before any decision was made,” Spiller recalls. “And then, always halfway through, Marie and I would both flip our positions and argue the other way. It was hard pushing and healthy brainstorming. We would constantly stress-test all our ideas and decisions as a team, no matter how heavy the lift or late the debate would have to go. I know it made for better decisions, even when we may have differed at the end. I also know it helped me grow as a leader.”

He expects the same dynamic with Beatty and Robertson.

“If you can be in a room with people who you’re continuing to grow with, you’re in the right room,” Spiller says.