Like most of us, Wendell Steinhauer can point to that one special teacher who had a genuine impact on his life.
“Arlene Barr expected more from me,” Steinhauer recalls. “She gave me more responsibility, even if it was something simple like carrying the milk boxes every morning. Because of how she treated me, I expected more of myself.”
Steinhauer describes himself as an average student until he crossed paths with Mrs. Barr in sixth grade. From that point forward he remained on the honor roll and ultimately graduated 10th in his class in high school. Around the same time Steinhauer decided that he wanted to be a teacher who made students feel special.
“What she did for me had nothing to do with standardized tests,” he explains. “It’s a perfect example of the hidden quality that good teachers possess that can’t be evaluated.”
It’s been an interesting journey for Steinhauer since those childhood days spent in Bradford, Pa—a journey he has thought a lot about as he takes over as NJEA president.
“I always worked hard, but was more of a ‘behind the scenes guy.’ I was the vice president you wanted to have.”
But a few years ago, that changed; Steinhauer realized he possessed the leadership qualities that would help him make a difference in an organization he loves. When then-NJEA President Edie Fulton appointed Steinhauer as an NEA Director in 2002, the “doors opened.” Soon he began to aspire to statewide office, so in 2005, he ran for NJEA secretary-treasurer and won. After serving under Joyce Powell (2005-09) and Barbara Keshishian (2009-13), it’s his turn to lead the 200,000 members of the New Jersey Education Association.
Reading, writing, roofing, romance and wrestling
A look at Steinhauer’s upbringing shows that his penchant for education and advocacy isn’t that surprising. His mother was a substitute teacher and his father was a unionized assembly line worker at a Corning plant. But that was just the beginning.
In high school, Steinhauer was a member of the cross country, wrestling and track teams. He spent long summer days and school breaks siding and roofing houses 60 miles away in Buffalo, N.Y. Steinhauer believes these experiences helped develop a strong work ethic—and pay for college.
“I was good in all subjects but really liked math. There’s always an answer—it’s black and white, logical and sequential.”
Clarion may have been a small college, but it boasted a Division I wrestling program and Steinhauer tried out. He credits his time in the program with teaching him many life lessons.
“I was relentless, and by working hard, I eventually made the ‘Team’ as second in my weight class. It was quite an accomplishment—a lot of guys never even made it into the wrestling room. I probably could have made first string at a Division III college, but there was something about being a part of one of the best teams in the nation.”
Studying, wrestling and a part-time job with campus security left little time for anything else. So when he graduated in 1978, Steinhauer was anxious to start on a new path.
Welcome to the Garden State
A few months later, Steinhauer landed his first—and only--teaching job. Although he was hoping to stay in northwestern Pennsylvania, he got a call from the principal in Riverside, N.J. who was looking for a math teacher and an assistant wrestling coach.
“I had to leave at three in the morning for a 10 a.m. interview,” Steinhauer remembers. “I got a flat tire right after the Burlington-Bristol Bridge, but didn’t have time to change out of my suit so I washed up at a gas station. I met with the principal; then he called in the wrestling coach. A few hours later I was in the superintendent’s office and by that afternoon, they showed me my classroom and my parking space.”
Steinhauer needed to find an apartment that met with Mary’s approval, since the couple was engaged that previous Christmas. They married on Sept. 30.
Soon Mary began work as a substitute teacher; by February, she got a full-time job in Riverside. Because the K-12 district was housed in one building, the newlyweds worked at the same school. Wendell spent some nights, most weekends and every summer earning extra money at a moving and storage company--a job he gave up only when he became NJEA secretary-treasurer 25 years later.
In 1984, the Steinhauers had their first child, Lisa, who has graduated from Penn State and serves as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Ukraine. Their son Adam, now 27, earned a degree in communications from The College of New Jersey and works as a video editor at Philadelphia Community College. Their youngest, Beth, just began classes at Burlington County College.
“Beth is the reason I hold a special place in my heart for students who face challenges. ” says Steinhauer. After surviving open heart surgery at only four days old, she has required accommodations throughout her schooling.
Meanwhile, Steinhauer’s career as a coach and teacher blossomed. In both capacities, he found himself drawn to the underdog. After serving as varsity defensive coach for the football team, he decided he’d rather coach freshmen.
“In college wrestling, I knew what it was like to be second string,” explained Steinhauer. That’s why I knew I could help these kids.”
In the classroom, he taught everything from general math to calculus; yet when Steinhauer became department head, he assigned himself the remedial classes.
“I connected with lower-level students,” he notes. “I was able to engage them, even in math. They would tell me ‘it always looks hard but when you explain it, it looks easy.’ I believe this is a strength that has helped me—taking complex ideas and making them simple.
“Years later I heard then-NEA President Reg Weaver explain my philosophy of education best: ‘kids will care about school when they know you care about them.’”
Stepping into association work
It wasn’t long before Steinhauer got involved in his local association. He questioned why in each of his first three years of teaching, a step was added to the salary guide keeping him just as far away from the top of the guide as when he started.
Those questions landed him on the negotiations team, and when the local president had to leave town due to a family emergency, Steinhauer became the de facto negotiations chair—a position he held for the next 22 years. Because of a good relationship with the superintendent, he also served as the “quasi grievance chairperson.”
Soon Steinhauer was vice president of the Riverside EA, working under two presidents. He also joined several committees, got involved with the Pride in Public Education campaign, and was the budget chair for the Burlington County EA (BCEA).
Finally, in 1999, he became local association president and was asked to run for BCEA president. In that position he automatically became a member of the NJEA Delegate Assembly.
“That’s when the doors opened for me,” Steinhauer believes. “I was elected as an NEA Director Alternate in 2002. Due to a growth in NJEA’s membership, we got an additional NEA Director position, and then Edie Fulton appointed me.
“I wasn’t looking for it, but these experiences gave me a feel for association work at the state and national levels. Soon I started to think about running for statewide office and I was fortunate to win on my first attempt.”
After eight years of having the “third and second greatest jobs in the world,” Steinhauer is thrilled to be the helm of NJEA, calling the opportunity both “scary and exhilarating.”
Moving from defense to offense
Steinhauer has plenty of ideas about how he can use his new position to make a difference in the lives of members. And to get things accomplished, he plans to employ a strategy he learned in high school and college athletics.
“A wrestler is penalized for stalling,” he explains. “So you can either make a move or wait for the other guy. I’d rather be on offense.”
Steinhauer’s proactive style coincides with an important gubernatorial election. Working with NJEA leaders and staff, he has mobilized the organization to work to elect Democrat Barbara Buono and to maintain a pro-public education Legislature. Steinhauer understands that not everyone enjoys politics, but believes this election is an important first step in fighting the corporate interests who want to tear down our public schools and break the unions that protect middle-class interests.
“Leadership is about taking people to places they don’t want to go and getting them to enjoy the ride,” says Steinhauer.
Another goal is to make the organization more nimble so it can respond quickly when issues arise. Steinhauer is convinced that the first step toward that objective is to unclutter NJEA’s massive policy documents.
“This process will help us understand what we stand for as an association. It will allow us to take a fresh look at the reform issues that dominate today’s educational discourse while still maintaining our core values. We can’t just put out fires; NJEA needs to lead and adopt a more progressive approach.
“We have to get the community on our side, and one way to do that is to build its trust and no longer be seen as the organization of ‘no.’ You can’t beat something with nothing. One reason I was an effective grievance chair was that I offered possible solutions to every problem when I met with the superintendent.”
Steinhauer realizes, of course, that he’s not the only one with great ideas and can’t be the only solution-maker.
“I want to empower leaders and staff so they can reach their full potential on behalf of our members. It all comes back to Mrs. Barr—she held me to a high standard and I have always done the same for my students and my colleagues.
“I need people to be as good as they can be because I don’t have all the answers. I want to hear everyone’s ideas, make a decision, and empower them to take action. We may make some mistakes along the way, but I can promise we will always get back up and keep fighting.”