Education Support Professionals: Meeting the Needs of the Whole Student
Jean G. Fay has no typical workday. Whether it's working one-on-one with a child with special needs, helping out in the cafeteria at lunchtime, sewing costumes for the school musical, or leading 40 2nd graders in the Crocker Farm Elementary hip-hop crew, she does it all! Jean is also known at Crocker Farm for her homemade cookies. Her kindergartners love to munch on them while they listen to her read "Junie B. Jones" stories. She wants to bring her love of reading to them every day, whether it's reading Simon James' "Baby Brains" books or poems by Emily Dickinson or T.S. Eliot.
Over the last 15 years, she has taught children to read, write, and do basic math; comforted children who were feeling sad; encouraged students in their social interaction; and helped them with all of their first steps in education. She has been there for them just as they begin learning to be learners and mastering the skills that they will need to be successful in life. On Thursday evenings, Saturdays, and Sundays, she heads to her second job, at JCPenney at the local mall. Working at JCPenney has meant more than just paying the bills, though. She has used it as a way to help students and their families. Using her employee discount and the Massachusetts Child grant program, Jean has been able to buy clothes and school supplies for her students. When the father of one of her students passed away and the mother was struggling financially, Jean was able to use the Massachusetts Child program to purchase clothes for the children for their dad's funeral. Jean continues to be connected to this family today.
You might assume that Jean is a teacher but she is not. She is an education support professional (ESP) and a special needs paraeducator. Jean is one of the 3 million ESPs nationwide who work in our public schools every day. They ensure the success of our students by meeting their physical, social, and emotional needs. ESPs work closely with students in and outside of the classroom, educating our children and fostering positive learning environments. They offer nutritious meals, provide reliable transportation, and maintain safe and clean schools to ensure that all students are ready to learn. They are the teachers' aides and paraeducators. They are your clerical and administrative, food service, transportation, custodial and maintenance, health and student service, trades, security services, and computer professionals.
Despite the essential role they have in education, ESPs are often invisible in our schools. They are rarely acknowledged or recognized for their contributions. More than often, they are not given a voice in school and site-level decisions or included in professional development in-service days. This upsets me profoundly. At a time when our students come to us with some of the most complex barriers to learning, we cannot afford to not enlist every adult in our schools. ESPs have a wealth of knowledge, experience, ideas and passion. They are a rich human resource that we must take full advantage of. ESPs are more likely than other school staff to live in the same community as their students. They live in the community and are parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and family friends. ESPs shop, worship, eat, and live among their students. They are the natural and logical conduit to the community. While ESPs often work alongside teachers and administrators, significant barriers still exist that prevent full collaboration and communication. Just as we know that fragmenting the child into parts doesn't work, we must also acknowledge that we cannot silo ourselves against one another in the education workforce. Ultimately, we have a shared responsibility to educate the whole student and prepare them for life. That is not something anyone of us can do alone. We must forge new relationships with another. We must engage and support one another. We must share information, trust, and connect. We must interact in deeper and more meaningful ways. ESPs, teachers, and administrators must rethink our roles and work differently and more collaboratively.
ESPs are a critical member of the education workforce because they meet the foundational needs of the whole student. They educate and nurture our children in the classroom, often our most vulnerable children with special needs. They protect and engage our students on the playgrounds, cafeterias, classrooms, hallways and while crossing the street. They drive them safely to and from school. They ensure they attend school and arrive to school on time. They keep school campuses and classrooms clean, beautiful, and well maintained. They roam the halls and grounds to ensure students are safe. They fix everything that breaks in the schools and ensure students are warm, comfortable, and breathing clean air. They feed students nutritious, safe, and tasty meals at breakfast and lunch ensuring their proper nutrition and health. They coach their sports teams and host after school chess clubs. They give first aid and provide them medical assistance when they are sick or injured. They intervene when students are being bullied or ostracized. They enable students to use technology and have access to the latest computing and telecommunications technologies. They create a welcoming school environment for students and parents. They conduct community outreach and engage with parents and the public. They buy the neediest of students clothes and school supplies. They show students the beauty of nature in school gardens. They mentor, befriend, nurture, support, protect, and counsel students.
Before the school year ended on June 25, Jean (along with the physical education teacher and another colleague at Crocker Farm) led her 40 2nd grade hip-hop dancers through a performance of Pharrell Williams' hit song "Happy" at the 6th grade graduation ceremonies. "The kids love it, and I am happy to say my 55-year-old body is able to hip hop right along with them," Jean said. None of these things are in Jean's job description, but like most ESPs, they are committed to do whatever they have to in order to prepare their students for today and tomorrow.
Roxanne McElrath Dove is the director of whole child partner organization National Education Association (NEA) Education Support Professional Quality (ESPQ) department. The NEA is a professional organization representing 3 million educators, including half a million education support professionals (ESPs). Dove has worked in education for nearly 30 years and has degrees in business administration and psychology counseling, as well as advanced learning and extensive experience in organization development and executive coaching. She started her career as an ESP member at the University of Southern Maine. In her quest to lift women out of poverty, Dove went to work for the Maine Education Association negotiating wages, hours, and working conditions for teachers, ESPs, and higher education workers. In 1994, she joined the NEA staff and was charged with developing and expanding the NEA ESP program. Twenty years later, the NEA is now the largest union of ESPs in the United States, represented by the NEA ESPQ department. Dove is also the mother of a 14-year-old daughter, Athena.