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Lawrence Teachers Association president Lori Skonberg steps down, to retire in 2022

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Lori Skonberg grew up with dyslexia — difficulty with learning to read or interpret words, letters and other symbols — at a time when discerning such disorders was not as common as it is now.

“I had a reading problem,” Skonberg said, sitting in the auditorium of the Lawrence School District’s Broadway campus, which now houses the elementary and middle schools where she teaches English Language Arts. “. . . I could read like you couldn’t believe, but ask me a question about what I read — I had a real problem with it all through elementary school.”

She played basketball, softball and volleyball in high school and basketball in college, at SUNY Geneseo. “My saving grace was that I was a very good athlete,” she said. “That saved me and saved my self-esteem.”

She combined her athletic skills with hard work to overcome her learning disability and forge a 41-year career in education that Skonberg, 63, will say goodbye to next year.

Becoming a teacher was her response to the challenges she faced. “Back then you were either a troublemaker [or] fell through the cracks. I wasn’t a behavior problem — I was good in sports; I was outgoing.” As a teacher, she said, “I didn’t want students to fall through the cracks.”

The Oceanside resident also stepped down last month as president of the Lawrence Teachers Association after nearly 13 years. The 234-member organization represents the school district’s teachers, librarians and social workers. Rachel Kreiss, a special education teacher at the middle school, was elected to succeed Skonberg. Kreiss, 48, is a cousin of Herald columnist Randi Kreiss.

Skonberg has taught at Lawrence for 27 of her 41 years, and also taught at private schools, including what is now Lawrence Woodmere Academy, when there was still a Woodmere Academy. A 1990 merger with Lawrence Country Day School created LWA.

She became more involved with the LTA roughly 25 years ago, at the Number Six School (now the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach), when Anne Young, an art teacher and the union’s senior building rep, approached Skonberg about succeeding her in representing the teachers in the building.

“I was already in the union, working my way up the ranks,” Skonberg said. “A few years after that I became president. It’s been a nice ride, even with all the ups and downs, the twists and the turns. I enjoyed every part of it.”

Adam Berlin, a social studies teacher at Lawrence Middle School and a previous LTA vice president, is returning as second vice president. “I am so thankful that we had Lori at the helm these last 12 years,” he wrote in an email. “She was a steady hand during a tumultuous time. Filling her shoes will not be easy. However, I have all the confidence in the world in Rachel Kreiss as the incoming LTA president. I am looking forward to working with her and incoming first vice-president Martina Tretter in their new capacities.”

Leading the LTA has given Skonberg many opportunities to help its members — from ensuring that a teacher had the proper prep time to getting an educator’s job back — and in turn, union members have aided the district and its students after Hurricane Sandy and during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We learned the new definition of a drive-by,” Skonberg said. “The new definition of a drive-by is teachers gong to the students’ houses to drop off books, to check on them to make sure they’re OK, to drop off food for them if they don’t have, to bring things to the students that they needed — that’s our definition of a drive-by.”

She added, “Unbeknownst to the district, the LTA collected money, and we gave out gift cards to so many families that didn’t have, and we did this several times throughout the course of the pandemic.”

Skonberg said that being an educator for more than 40 years has taught her that teaching is more than just presenting a daily lesson. “Because I talk to the students — that’s what most of us do,” she said, noting the hardships the pandemic has created for students, from being cooped up in a small living space to losing loved ones to the virus. “During Covid … you popped online. They didn’t want to learn, they needed to talk.”

Last year, Skonberg went as far as promising to dye her hair any color to entice her students to go online at the beginning of the pandemic. “Three weeks later my hair became fuchsia,” she said. “Guess what? They showed up. We talked, we laughed, we had show and tell. Kids don’t have a problem being alone, they have a problem being lonely.”

Calling it a “disappointment” that she could not hammer out a new contract for district teachers — the LTA has been working under an agreement that expired in 2011 — Skonberg will hand the issue off to Kreiss, but anticipates serving as an adviser.

“The elephant in the room is agreeing to a contract, but I think it is really, at this point, a smooth re-entry to next year after a year of pandemic,” Kreiss said of her top priority, adding that she would work so “that the teachers are given the respect and treated like the professionals that we are.”