By HARRIET PROTHRO PENROD
As the young waitress brings our check following a delicious meal at First Watch, my lunch companion strikes up a conversation with her. Are you in school? Where? What are you studying? The waitress pulls up a chair and the two engage in a delightful exchange.
I’m not sure if the waitress knew with whom she was conversing. Instead of introducing herself, my lunch guest says, “I’m that woman you’ve heard about.”
Lots of people have heard about “that woman.”
When children began returning to school in the brutally hot days of August and very few school buses in Caddo Parish were air-conditioned, she fought for our kids.
When Act I of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2012 legislation weakened teacher tenure provisions and shifted powers of local school boards to superintendents, she fought for our educators.
To many, she is considered a hero.
To some, other words might be used.
So, I ask her: “What is a myth about Jackie Lansdale that you think some people might believe?”
“Sometimes women, in general, are painted as shrill and overbearing,” she says. “Especially in the South.”
There is no doubt – Lansdale is from the South. There is no denying it when you hear that well-earned southern drawl.
Born in Shreveport but raised in East Texas, Lansdale graduated from high school in Carthage and went on to earn her undergraduate degree in public administration from Stephen F. Austin State University and her master’s in social studies from Southern Connecticut State University.
(One of six children, Lansdale was the first to go to college).
While she was working on her master’s degree, Lansdale – then a mother of three (and soon -to-be “surprise” mother of four) – also got her alternative teacher certification.
Then, in 1991, Lansdale was “drawn back” to Shreveport, where a number of her family members lived. She taught for a semester at Booker T. Washington High School (and at night at Bossier Parish Community College) before transferring to Byrd High School, where she taught free enterprise, civics, and world history for four-and-a-half years.
It was during her time at Byrd that something happened to steer her in another direction – a teacher was held responsible for an incident that happened to a child. That was when Lansdale left the classroom and began her battle for the rights of educators.
“I looked around and said, ‘We need to do better than this,’” she recalls. “When I got to Caddo, the salaries were pitiful.”
So Lansdale became president of the precursor to the teachers union – the professional educator’s group that was a seedling from the American Federation of Teachers. She was the first organizing chair of the Caddo Federation of Teachers, which evolved into what is now Red River United – the largest organization in the state representing teachers and school personnel.
Lansdale has served as president since the union was chartered in 1996.
“In 2011, I had the opportunity to work with the national organization to create a regional project,” says Lansdale, “and that’s when Bossier was brought in.”
Today, RRU has over 3,000 members in Caddo, Bossier, Red River, and (just-added) DeSoto Parish.
She’s the one you’ll see at every Caddo Parish School Board meeting (twice a month) and, when needed, on the street picketing or talking to the media to fight for the rights of her members.
Two of the biggest initiatives heralded by the union are the choosing of BlueCross/Blue Shield as the parish insurance and the teacher pay raise that was secured in 1997.
Those are some of the “big things” that the union is known for achieving. Behind the scenes, however, are the small things that people don’t see – including helping a custodian on an everyday basis whose house was damaged in a recent shooting.
“I can’t fix everything for you, but we look at the laws and policies to see what we can do,” says Lansdale. “I’m always going to make sure that whatever we do, you get the process due you. You may not have much, but I’m going to squeeze every ounce of that out for you.
“I’m going to do my best to make sure you’re treated in a respectful and dignified manner.”
For all of the union’s successes, however, there have been many struggles.
One of the biggest continues to be retaining teachers in the public schools.
“If I went to a new teacher orientation right now and asked them why they wanted to be teachers,” says Lansdale, “they’d probably say, ‘No. 1, I love children; No. 2, I love my subject; and No. 3, Somebody made a difference in my life and I believe I can make a difference in a child’s life.’
“I bet if you went back to when we created public education, those would have been the same answers.”
Getting teachers in the public schools isn’t the hardest part – it’s keeping them.
“Whenever we quit letting people do what they love to do, they won’t stay,” explains Lansdale. “I don’t care how much you pay them, they’re not going to stay; it’s not worth it.”
While the COVID pandemic exacerbated this problem, there are many reasons why teachers leave public education – low pay, the emphasis on excessive testing, discipline problems, to name just a few.
In other words, there’s always enough to keep Lansdale busy.
In addition to the tireless work she puts in as president of RRU, she spends her spare time enjoying being a grandmother. She and her husband, who will soon celebrate 47 years of marriage, have four children (two sons and two daughters) and nine grandchildren.
Jake (the youngest) and Jordan (who works with her mother at RRU) live in Shreveport while their oldest son lives in Alabama and older daughter makes her home in Colorado.
So, could this possibly be getting close to the day when Lansdale thinks about retiring?
Don’t count on it.
As her daughter Jordan said in a video about her mom that was taken to the state convention (when it was thought that Lansdale was retiring): “She’s always going to push the limit to the point that it could drive you a little bit crazy, but that’s what she does.”
The video, by the way, is a moving tribute to that woman – the one who has done so much to protect the rights of public teachers and school personnel. It will be shown one day, but not just yet.
“I told them to save it for my obituary,” she says.
Contact Harriet at email@example.com