Profile: Meet the New Boss at the New Jersey Education Association

A self-professed numbers guy and union man, the NJEA's Wendell Steinhauer has both eyes trained on the future of his profession

Wendell Steinhauer, president of the NJEA.
Who he is: Newly elected president of the New Jersey Education Association, effective September 1, 2013

Age: 56

Why he matters: As head of the 200,000-member NJEA, Steinhauer leads arguably the state’s most powerful union at a pivotal time of change to schools and employees statewide. The new president comes aboard as Gov. Chris Christie, a frequent adversary, is running for reelection and being named a top contender for the U.S. presidency in 2016.

Where he’s coming from: The son of a union man and career math teacher, Steinhauer recognizes the political challenges faced by organized labor — particularly teachers — these days. He says he wants the union to adapt and be more proactive, saying the NJEA should do more to showcase its research and hands-on help to teachers. But he’s not one to back off in a tussle, a familiar place for the NJEA over the past few years with Christie in office.

On the record: “One of the things I’ve learned is we can’t operate in the same style we used to. We have to be more nimble in our decision-making, and instead of reacting, let’s be the leader on the issues.”

A Christie thaw? The governor and the NJEA have quieted the combat a little in the past year, especially with the passage of the tenure reform bill that both negotiated. But volleys still get lobbed now and again, and it’s no surprise that the NJEA backed Democratic challenger Barbara Buono for governor.

Why Buono: The NJEA was among the first to endorse Buono, a Democratic state Senator and longtime ally. “She’s our 100 percent candidate — very seldom do you get a candidate who matches up on all the issues.”

But just in case: “I look forward to working with [Gov. Christie] on issues where we can find common ground. I don’t think he’ll lay down his weapons, nor do I think he would expect that of us, but I’d welcome the chance to sit down with him.”

No lightweight: Steinhauer was a wrestler in high school in eastern Pennsylvania, and ended up coaching wrestling at Riverside High School. He was a middleweight, at 167 pounds.

Neither is the NJEA: The NJEA is the third-largest state affiliate of the National Education Association, behind only California and New York.

Salary: The union does not release salary figures, but Steinhauer is surely in line with his predecessor, Barbara Keshishian, who was paid more than $270,000 in 2012. It’s a dicey topic, one that has generated Christie’s jabs over the years.

The math teacher: Always adept in math — “I liked that there was always an answer in math,” he said — the education major from Clarion State College applied on a long shot in 1975 to teach math at Riverside High School. He didn’t leave until 2005, to become secretary-treasurer of the NJEA.

The union leader: During his stint at Riverside he was recruited for the negotiations team of the school local. “I was kind of the numbers guy, and became the negotiation chair for the next 22 years.” He was elected the Riverside president in 1999 and then county president. He ran successfully for statewide secretary-treasurer in 2005, and followed the usual succession to be elected president this spring.

Learning the ropes: As county president, he was appointed to be a National Education Association director and started to see the operations of the state and national organizations. “That opened my eyes, it’s where I saw I could make a difference.”

The good old (union) days: “Compared to now, it was much better then,” he said. “There were confrontations, but you could always sit down and work it out. Nobody was trying to get anything over on anyone.”

Teacher evaluation: It is the hot issue of the moment with the roll-out of the new evaluation systems in every district statewide. While part of the final negotiations that crafted the law, Steinhauer said its implementation could have been better paced. “There is a lot of anxiety about it — it’s moving too fast and without the proper training.”

Other hot issues: State funding, school construction, charter schools are all in the NJEA’s cross-hairs, but Steinhauer also wants the union to think ahead about what’s coming next. “It’s been a tough few years, and I’m looking for us to have new life, new ideas.”

Hometown: When not clocking an estimated 20,000 air-miles a year, Steinhauer lives in Riverside with his wife, Mary. She also teaches at Riverside High School, and has succeeded her husband as the Burlington County union president. They have three children, the youngest still in college and none yet pursuing careers in either education or organized labor. “They want to find their own path.”