Tom Dooher has a rich family history in organized labor. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he has become the president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers’ union.
Dooher’s grandfather, Patrick Corcoran, trained as a teacher in the 1930s but found a more lucrative career in driving a milk truck. As he spent his days behind the wheel making deliveries, he heard stories of injustices and poor working conditions. He was inspired to give a voice to the laborers who were powerless to influence any change; however, with the 1930s being a very tumultuous and violent time for organized labor, this was a dangerous stand for Corcoran to take – one for which he eventually paid the ultimate price.
The spirit of Patrick Corcoran is something Dooher tries to emulate as he builds bridges among students, parents, educators and policymakers. “I have always felt a connection to my grandfather, even though I never met him,” said Dooher. From his desk he looks up at a newspaper clipping hanging on his office wall from a 1937 edition of The Northwest Organizer with his grandfather’s obituary. The face that looks back at him shares uncanny resemblances. “He strove to bring people together, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do. In a way, I have the opportunity to carry out the work that he couldn’t.”
Dooher came to St. Thomas in the early 1980s as a sprinter recruited to the track team. He initially considered a major in business, but his roommate encouraged him to attend a guest lecture on teaching and caused Dooher to reconsider. “That experience lit a fire in me to reflect on who the most influential people in my life were – and they were coaches and teachers.” At that point, he changed his major to education.
After completing his undergraduate degree at St. Thomas, Dooher returned to Robbinsdale, the school district where he grew up, and spent 10 years teaching physical education and coaching. He found the most rewarding experiences to be those in which he taught students to learn beyond the curriculum and focus on how to positively impact other areas of their lives – a quality he credits to his liberal arts education from St. Thomas.
“For me, it was about building the skills to become a lifelong learner,” said Dooher. “The liberal arts focus gave me the skills and strategies on how to think and analyze problems on a more global level than if I had been focused more narrowly. It was less about preparing for a career than it was about preparing for life.”
During his years in the classroom, he, as his grandfather did, saw challenges with the levels of bureaucracy that affected him, his colleagues and his industry. “Mandates without resources, seeing kids who you know you could impact but your class is too large to give them the attention they deserve, it made it tough.”
These types of challenges inspired him to become involved with his local teachers’ union, which he led for 10 years. He brought a breadth of perspective to the position, having graduated from the district and spent time as a substitute and a full-time teacher and coach. Always at the forefront was the question, “How can we do what’s right for students by being fair to employees?”
And it was that attitude that led him to run for president of Education Minnesota. “I know what it’s like to be a classroom teacher, and I know what it’s like to be a local union leader,” said Dooher. “Really, what we’re trying to do is solve the problems and make public schools better tomorrow than they are today.”
When he’s not in his office overlooking the state Capitol or in schools meeting with his constituents, Dooher enjoys heading up to his family’s cabin in northwestern Wisconsin, where he says he can “just be Tom” for the weekend. It’s there that he spends time with his godchildren and can ask them without an ounce of ulteriority “what did you learn in school this week?”
In reflecting upon the somewhat parallel path he’s traversed to his grandfather, Dooher understands that he could never fill such large shoes with regard to advocacy for the workers in his industry. “But if I can do something to positively impact schools and public policy, I think that’s the best step I can take to honor him.”
Read more from St. Thomas magazine