You don’t plan these things. I assumed I would retire as a Utah teacher and I think I would’ve been very happy. The truth is I’m a pretty happy person. I’m going to be happy doing whatever I am doing. I was a happy lunch lady. —Lily Eskelsen García

SALT LAKE CITY — A former Utah educator, who began her career as a lunch lady and kindergarten aide, was elected last week as president of the nation's largest labor union.

Lily Eskelsen García, the current vice president of the National Education Association, was elected president by roughly 8,000 delegates at the NEA Annual Meeting, which was held last week in Denver.

Eskelsen García's term as president will officially begin on Sept. 1. Her election drew praise from outgoing president Dennis Van Roekel, who has held the post for six years.

"Lily’s going to be the most dynamic spokesperson I think we’ve ever had, and she will make people take notice,” Van Roekel said in a prepared statement. “She will continue to push for equity in education and carry on the organization’s commitment to student-centered union leadership and social justice.”

In a February Deseret News profile, Eskelsen García said she did not originally intend on pursuing a career in education beyond her classroom. And it was on the recommendation of a colleague that she first decided to pursue a teaching degree.

"You don’t plan these things,” she said in February. “I assumed I would retire as a Utah teacher and I think I would’ve been very happy. The truth is I’m a pretty happy person. I’m going to be happy doing whatever I am doing. I was a happy lunch lady.”

Eskelsen García worked as an elementary teacher for the Granite School District and in 1989 was named Utah Teacher of the Year. She later served as president of the Utah Education Association and in various roles at the NEA as well as being named by President Barack Obama to serve as a commissioner on the White House Commission on Education Excellence for Hispanics.

She is also known for her work as an educator of homeless youths in Salt Lake City.

"We must measure what matters and put students’ needs at the center of the system once again. We can no longer allow politicians who have never stepped into a classroom define what it means to teach and learn,” she said in a prepared statement. “At a time when nearly 50 percent of public school children live in low-income families, our country must refocus its priorities on the needs of the whole child and bridge the gaps that have only grown over the last decade.”

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood