Hyena stumps Sorensen. Despite her best efforts to recall the characters of The Lion King, she can't remember what a Hyena's tail looks like, so she turns the puzzle into a teaching moment. "How would I find out about hyena tails?" she asks the class. Several children suggest looking in animal books or visiting the library, and then a wonderful moment occurs, one that reminds Sorensen how times have changed. "You could go to hyenatails.com", advises one child. Another adds, "It would be easier if you just googled it."
Teaching in the 21st century presents special opportunities and challenges. Sorensen, who joined the Juneau School District in 1981 is keenly aware of those challenges. She has worked throughout her career to represent education employees across the tide of economic, technological, and legislative changes that impact their professions. She is a regular participant at Mendenhall River School Site Council and Parent Teacher Organization meetings. She has held almost every leadership position on the Juneau Education Association's executive board, from President to membership coordinator and a member of the Educational Excellence Committee. She has been on every contract bargaining team since 1984, and she has served as the Southeast Alaska's Region I Director on the NEA-Alaska's governing board, the statewide organization that provides training and support for regional educational associations. Now she is reaching farther, running to represent 13,000 of Alaska's education employees as the President of NEA-Alaska.
Photo by Amy Steffian Deedie Sorensen works with first graders, from left, Michael Mattingly, Erich Mattingly and Brayden Massey.
"Living in Juneau I have lots of experience lobbying, and I have lots of hands-on real life experience in the classroom. I know I can be an effective voice for our children and their schools. The connection is very basic, my students' learning conditions are my working conditions.
Sorensen also feels that her many years of teaching provide a unique, perspective on the profession today. Educated in Montana, she holds two Bachelor's Degrees, one in Elementary Education and another in Anthropology and Sociology, a Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education and a graduate endorsement in special education. She began teaching in 1973 and moved north when her former college roommate from Juneau, noted that she could improve her standard of living by working in Alaska.
"I doubled my salary by moving to Juneau" Sorensen said. "Alaska used to have some of the best paid teachers in the nation. We lost that standing years ago. Now we are closer to the middle than the top, and in terms of salary advances, we are virtually at the bottom of the 50 states." In addition to the financial stresses placed on teachers and other education employees, Sorensen is also concerned about the impacts that new requirements place on teachers and other school staff. "We have lots of new teachers, many of whom are in overwhelming circumstances. They have students with many needs and both need specific help and materials to allow the students to reach their highest potential. We need to find ways to not just help school employees make it through the year, but help weave them into the fabric of advocacy for excellent education for all of Alaska's children."
Campaigning for the NEA-Alaska Presidency is expensive, time-consuming work. Sorensen has two opponents for the Presidency, one living in the Anchorage area, the other traveling in a position with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. According to Sorensen, "For the last 16 years the NEA-Alaska President came from a big community." Each had been out of the classroom for several years before they were elected. Teaching full time and stumping for votes from modestly populated Southeast Alaska will require extra effort.
Sorensen kicked off her campaign with a trip to the National Education Association's annual Representative Assembly in Philadelphia last July, where she represented Juneau teachers while she met leaders of Alaska's other local education associations. In the coming months she will travel to Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Fairbanks, and other Alaska communities, to connect with leaders and education employees. Through coffee clatches and informal conversations she plans to learn more about local concerns, share her ideas for a better-connected statewide organization, and encourage education employees to vote and send in their ballot next February.
"There is a perceived distance between the state and local associations, a feeling that the state organization hasn't really worked to meet members needs. We need to change that," said Sorensen. She is also planning trips in Southeast Alaska. Sitka and Ketchikan are on her itinerary and she is looking for contacts in other communities that will help her meet local members of NEA-Alaska.
To learn more about Sorensen's platform you will soon be able to find her in 21st century style - through Google. Glacier Valley teacher and technology whiz Geoffrey Wyatt is building her a website at ddforachange.org.