Denise Specht steps into the leadership of Education Minnesota, the state’s powerful teachers union, at a critical point in its history.

During the last two legislative sessions, the 70,000-member union, which is near the top of the heap when it comes to spending money on lobbying, helped score major victories in boosting K-12 funding and protecting teacher seniority.

But Specht knows that major challenges are ahead. Many Minnesota teachers feel like they’ve taken a beating in the court of public opinion, and their union faces increasing pushback from foes of organized labor and from upstart education reform groups that oppose seniority-dictated teacher staffing decisions.

“There’s no doubt that educators’ morale is at an all-time low,” Specht said Tuesday in an interview. “But I believe it all comes down to respect. We have to make sure teachers are respected in their workplace.”

In April, Specht, 47, of Shoreview, handily defeated two-term president Tom Dooher for the chance to lead Education Minnesota. While the two candidates generally saw eye-to-eye on most issues, their leadership styles are very different, members say.

Dooher was generally viewed as a strong union leader, but some rank-and-file members complained that they felt personally disconnected from him. He also irritated some conservative legislators.

Specht, supporters say, is more willing to get down into the trenches with them on local education issues and seems more interested in making sure teachers’ voices are heard.

“I think Tom was the right person for us at the time,” said JeanMarie Scarr, president of the Centennial Education Association, a group Specht once led. “He was always willing to take a stand for us even if that meant drawing a line in the sand. Denise is more likely to say, ‘Why don’t you come on over to our side, or how about we meet you over there?’ She truly wants to build better relationships.”

A talent for motivating

Specht, a native of the western Twin Cities exurb of Buffalo whose parents were teachers, got her first teaching job in 1989 in Progreso, Texas, a border town shaped by extreme poverty. Specht interviewed for the job by phone and drove to south Texas five days after accepting it.

“I found out that when families and educators work together, great things can happen,” she said. “In the Rio Grande Valley, parents saw education as a way out of poverty.”

Specht returned to Minnesota three years later to accept a job in Forest Lake. In 1995, she moved to the Centennial district, where she taught for more than a decade.

Her former colleagues in that district say Specht had a knack for motivating students whether they were the brightest in the class or struggling.

“I always found her rooting for the kids — and even staff members — who might go unnoticed otherwise,” said Colleen Miller, a Centennial special education teacher. “She’s such a smart and creative person who is great at pulling out the best in people.”

Specht became active in the Centennial teachers union after a colleague who served as a building steward got a cancer diagnosis.

“That’s what happens in a school when one of your family members needs help. You step up,” she said.

She further immersed herself in the union, and in 2007 she decided to run for Education Minnesota’s secretary/treasurer, and won.

Leaving the classroom, she said, was difficult. “I had to tell myself that I was going to have an impact in a different way,” she said.

On a national level, Specht has served on the National Education Association’s Membership Advisory Committee and its higher-education subcommittee.

While Specht is clearly a name in national teacher union circles, her supporters say it’s her willingness to support them on local issues that has won them over since she became a state officer.

Julie Blaha, president of the Anoka-Hennepin district’s teachers union, remembers Specht volunteering to call voters during a levy campaign a few years ago.

“She’s really there for you when you need her the most,” Blaha said. “She’s a big-picture person, but she’s also really good on the ground.”

Kimberly Colbert, a St. Paul teacher, said she has always appreciated Specht’s presence during contract talks with her local union.

“It means a lot to see a state officer in the same room with you,” said Colbert, who is on Education Minnesota’s governing board. “She’s not an ivory-tower kind of leader.”

What lies ahead

Specht will need the support of her fellow teachers in coming years. Not only does Education Minnesota face perennial opposition from anti-labor groups, it now is drawing opposition from younger, well-mobilized groups such as StudentsFirst and MinnCAN, which have supported legislation that sought to transform teacher tenure, perhaps the bedrock of the state union.

“I’m very hopeful that the new leadership won’t be opposed to opening a dialogue on issues that the previous leadership didn’t want to engage us on,” said Daniel Sellers, MinnCAN’s executive director, citing teacher evaluations and charter school accountability as examples of issues where there might be common ground.

Specht said she’s open to talking with groups like MinnCAN, but her willingness to do so shouldn’t be construed as her being soft on labor issues.

In fact, she said, the group will continue to take strong stands on their “bread-and-butter” issues such opposing attempts to make Minnesota a “right-to-work” state.

“This organization, we can be better. We’re going to be better” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.”