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Sandra Feldman, 1939-2005

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Sandra Feldman, who spent two decades heading up teachers unions on the local, state and national levels, lost her long battle with breast cancer Sunday at the age of 65; she'd stepped down as president of the American Federation of Teachers last year after a recurrence of the illness.

Though we had our differences with her over the years, we join with the colleagues and union members she served so faithfully in mourning her loss.

From her first days in kindergarten at P.S. 188 in Coney Island, Sandy Feldman was a product of New York City education, graduating from James Madison HS and earning degrees at Brooklyn College and NYU.

Her first stint as a teacher did not go well - she left the system after just one term, only to return several years later after working as a substitute.

For 11 years, she headed up the AFT's largest affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers, which represents the city's teachers. She also founded the statewide New York State Union of Teachers, which - appropriately - recently gave her a distinguished-service award named for her mentor, the late Albert Shanker.

In 1997, she followed in Shanker's footsteps and won election as president of the national union. There she became a strong proponent of strict academic standards - for both students and teachers - and rigorous teacher training.

"We can't reach first-class standards without first-class teachers," Feldman told a 2002 White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers. By first-class, she said, she meant "dedicated professionals who have a wide and deep understanding of their subject and a repertoire of proven strategies for delivering it to their students."

Indeed, she said, "state licensing bodies and professional standards boards should require that entering teachers meet high standards that include knowledge of their disciplines, of how students learn and of the liberal arts and sciences."

As a union leader, she fought fiercely and effectively for her members' benefit. Yet, as then-Mayor Ed Koch once noted, "You couldn't find anyone who is more stand-up for unionism and her members, but at the same time makes decisions on their merits, not by knee-jerk ideology."

Teachers everywhere - but especially in New York - were lucky to have her as an advocate.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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