NJEA’s new executive director
By Patrick Rumaker
This year, Kevin Kelleher became NJEA’s eighth executive director. Born and raised in Larchmont, New York, he is a product of the public schools where he grew up. After graduating from Mamaroneck High School, he attended St. Bonaventure University in western New York state, where he majored in mathematics and enrolled in teacher education courses.
While at St. Bonaventure, Kelleher competed on the swim team. Swimming season precluded him from student teaching, so he did not initially pursue a career as an educator, despite having studied for it. After graduation, he worked at an actuarial firm in New York City before education lured him back.
“I eventually decided that being an actuary wasn’t for me,” Kelleher said. “I called St. Bonaventure and asked if I could come back and complete my student teaching. They said, ‘Absolutely!’”
Not long after he finished his requirements to be certified, an education job fair led to his first job in public education, as a high school math teacher in Long Beach, California. While there, he earned a master’s degree in education curriculum from the University of California at Dominguez Hills. He also holds a master’s degree in classroom education from Walden University.
His time teaching in California was a brief stop in his public education journey, but it proved to be an important one for the career path that was to follow. Soon, though, the pull of family on the East Coast grew stronger and he found himself in New Jersey, teaching math in Mendham Township, a K-8 district in Morris County. Not long after arriving there, a question about family medical leave prompted him to reach out to his local union, the Mendham Township Education Association (MTEA). What happened next is not surprising.
“When you ask a question, they invite you to a meeting,” he quipped. “When you go to a meeting, they give you an assignment. And in a small local like mine, you start to do a little bit of everything.”
Before long, “a little bit of everything” led to Kelleher serving as the local’s grievance chair, negotiations chair and, eventually, as MTEA President.
In 2003, after over 12 years as a teacher and local leader, Kelleher joined NJEA staff as an associate director in the Research and Economic Services Division. In 2013 he was promoted to director of that division. From 2018 to 2019, he served as interim director of the Government Relations Division while continuing to direct the Research Division. In 2019, he was appointed deputy executive director of NJEA, the position he held until his recent promotion.
Kelleher recently sat down with the editor of the Review to discuss his journey from classroom teacher to executive director and how the lessons he learned along the way will guide him as he leads NJEA’s staff and helps chart the course for our union.
What were you like as a teacher?
I’m a very structured person—that’s why I love math. But I think my students also saw me as a teacher who tried to understand and relate to them. And I understood the importance of fun as a part of learning. I was student council adviser. Working with the students, I organized the big field trips at the end of the year and other activities. I loved being a teacher.
What stories stand out from your teaching career?
I taught a brother and a sister. Their father passed away when the sister was graduating from high school and the brother was in sixth grade.
At the end of the brother’s eighth-grade year, his mother came to see me. She told me I was the topic of many dinner conversations right after her husband passed away. I had no idea. She talked about how her son really liked being in my classroom, and how he could relate to me.
Then she gave me a gift for my new baby daughter: a little piggy bank. We still have that bank. And when I see it, I’m reminded that you don’t always know the impact you make outside your classroom. Students don’t see you as just their teacher. You’re someone they look up to. Whatever your job in a school, your impact is greater than you can really know.
What attracted you to employment with NJEA?
My county association [the Morris County Council of Education Associations] asked me to serve on the NJEA Member Benefits Committee. Through that, I met some of the staff in the Research Division who told me about a job opening in the pensions and health care unit. The connection between my education background and the work I had done at the actuarial firm made it feel like a perfect fit for me. I was ready for a new challenge.
How did your experience prepare you for union advocacy?
My mom volunteered in my high school in the College Education Center. Kids would go see her after school or during their free period to explore college options. She helped steer me toward education.
My dad was the vice president of a construction company, so he was on the management side. He would sometimes take me along on jobs. I watched how he interacted with the workers. That was probably my first exposure to unions, and my impression was that management and the union were all working to get the same job done. That helped me see the value of unions and also the benefit of working together toward a shared goal. That’s still the ideal to me.
I’m the fourth of five kids in my family. One of my older sisters was a mental health provider. Another worked for the Red Cross in fundraising. I think the idea of giving back has always been a value my sisters and my mom held, and that influenced me.
When I became a teacher, I saw that unions are really just people coming together to help each other. It’s about supporting each other and bringing each other along. It’s a natural fit with the values of giving back and helping others that I learned at home.
Why do you want to be executive director?
When I first started to teach in New Jersey, I just knew I was in a union. Eventually, I started to learn more about how the whole structure of local and county affiliates works within NJEA. The more I learned, the more I saw that NJEA is a union that truly cares about its members and the students we educate. No other organization does more to keep our schools the best in the nation. That requires involved members and a talented, dedicated staff. It is an absolute honor to lead that staff and to serve those members.
I’ve always wanted to contribute as much as I could. When the Research Director position opened up, I applied for the job because I had a vision for the staff and what we could do for our members. When I was asked to help out as the interim Government Relations director, I saw how I could guide the staff there as we worked with our members to get laws passed that gave them better working conditions and more secure retirements.
I loved my work as the deputy executive director over the last three years and seeing how all the parts of NJEA work together to support members. So when Steve Swetsky retired and the executive director job opened up, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to lead our 254 full-time staff and our 150 part-time staff.
And with Sean, Steve and Petal leading on the governance side, along with Denise Graff Policastro, our new deputy executive director, I know NJEA will continue to be a strong union that represents every member.
NJEA strives to be a justice-centered union. What stands out in your personal justice journey?
I grew up in Westchester County. I wouldn’t say we were upper class, but we were comfortably middle class. My dad would say to me, “Work hard, put your nose to the grindstone, and you’re going to do great things.”
And he was right. I did all the things he said. I graduated college. I went to New York City. I worked hard and did well there. Life just seemed to work out for me.
Then I decided to become a teacher. I got a job in Long Beach, California—a district with a lot of poverty and almost no middle-class families. It sure didn’t look like the neighborhood I grew up in. It was an eye-opening experience for me.
Looking back at my time there, I was the math teacher who put the problems up on the board and demonstrated the solutions. At the end of the period I sent my students away with homework. I thought that was the job. When they would come back the next day empty-handed, I’d ask, “Why didn’t you do your homework?”
At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate all the advantages I had. As a kid, I was able to concentrate on my homework because I didn’t really have other responsibilities. I didn’t have to go home and make dinner for myself or watch my little brother. I knew if I needed extra time to finish my homework, my dad would drive me to school. My mom had my lunch ready every day.
I also didn’t fully appreciate all the challenges my students in Long Beach faced that I never did. I didn’t have to face racial or gender discrimination. I didn’t have to deal with poverty or hunger. Looking back, I recognize that I was given opportunities because of my gender and the color of my skin. I had an easy road compared to the students I was trying to teach.
There are times now when I wish I could go back and teach those same students again. I would look at the whole student instead of just the math problem on the board.
How do we get to the point where people don’t just see NJEA as “the teachers’ union”?
If education is only considered to be the time that students sit in the classroom, we’re missing a lot. The reason we have the number one schools in the nation is, yes, because of great teachers, but also because of outstanding bus drivers and secretaries and custodians and librarians and parprofessionals and nurses. Success comes from everyone who is educating, supporting and protecting our children—from the time they get on the bus in the morning until they get home at the end of the day.
So we’re going to keep highlighting the contributions of all of our members, and we are going to keep fighting for the respect and recognition that every NJEA member deserves for making our schools the best in the nation.
What issues do you see dominating the start of your tenure?
I think we have four main things we need to focus on right now.
One is membership. The Janus decision in 2018 changed the landscape we operate in. To attract and retain members in the post-Janus world, we need to be a union that understands what members value and that keeps members’ priorities at the center of everything we do.
It also means helping to build a pipeline of future educators that meets students’ needs and looks like New Jersey. This is one of the most diverse states in America, but our membership does not yet fully reflect that. We need to recruit the next generation of educators—and I mean all educators, whether bus drivers, secretaries, parprofessionals, custodians or teachers—by removing barriers and creating opportunities for talented people from every New Jersey community to join this great profession.
Another priority is restoring respect for the profession. To attract the best people to our schools, educators need to be respected. That means good salaries, benefits and working conditions, of course, but also treating our members as the professionals and experts they are. So we will keep reminding the public and our elected leaders of how successful our schools are and who made that happen. And we will keep fighting back against people who attack and demean our members to score cheap political points.
And that leads to the third priority, which is political engagement. We will work to elect people at every level of government who believe in public education and who demonstrate that by funding our schools and supporting our students. Because our schools’ success is everyone’s success. Companies get started here and families settle here because of New Jersey’s great public schools. We know all of that is at risk if we don’t play our part in the political process and fight for our profession, our students, and the communities where we live and work.
Finally, we will continue to lead as a justice-centered union. Justice isn’t something that happens overnight, or in a year, or even 10 years. It’s something we will always need to focus on. To do that, our union needs to reflect the diversity of our members and our students, and it needs to advocate for what members and students need to thrive and succeed. Our schools succeed when our communities succeed. We have to be a union that works to make that success possible for everyone. Justice has to mean justice for all.
What do you want to say to NJEA members?
I see you, and I hear you.
NJEA isn’t just for a few people in leadership positions. It’s not your president’s union. It’s certainly not your executive director’s union. This union is for everybody. It’s your union. Your voice is just as important as anyone else’s. So speak up. Get involved. Help build the union you want to belong to.
It’s your union.
Patrick Rumaker is the editor of the NJEA Review.