Special thanks: NCESP Chair Debby Chandler and CTA leaders Eric Heins, Teresa Montano and David Goldberg, as well as my supporters Dana Dillon, Mike Patterson, and the most recent ESPs of the Year – Paula Monroe and Janet Eberhardt- both from the great state of California! Thank you also to NCESP Chair Debby Chandler.
My name is Doreen McGuire Grigg. I am the granddaughter of an immigrant from Japan. I am the daughter of a teacher and administrator. I am a wife, a mom, a gramma and a grauntie. I am a special education paraeducator. I am a proud education support professional and union member.
When CTA changed its bylaws to include ESP members I was called upon by then president of the California Teachers Association Barbara Kerr and leader Paula Monroe to help advance the cause of ESP members and public education in California. I stepped up. I said yes.
I live in a very rural area in Northern California. There I helped organize my small local. In 2011, I was the first ESP member in California to be elected to a state position on the NEA Board of Directors. I represent teachers from 16 counties in Northern California as well as all the ESP members in California.
But there is more you should know about me. I work in the community I grew up in- Lakeport, California. I work in the same school I went to as a child. So for me, work is more than work, it’s my home. My students are an extension of me, of my identity—I know their families, I know their struggles. I know about the arguments they are having with their friends, and I know what triumphs they are celebrating on any given day. Most of all, I know what it’s like to fight for our kids. That’s because, as an education support professional, I am used to being their secret weapon—the glue that helps hold the school community together.
It is an honor for me to stand here today, representing incredible education support professionals from around the United States—like you (Can I hear from all the ESP out there?!) Great educators like the state Education Support Professionals of the Year and the NEA White House Champions of Change school support professionals. We all have one thing in common: we strive to connect with each student, to provide a healthy, safe and fertile environment for learning. There are over two million of us—we are advocates and often the bridge between our schools and our communities. And as such, we are often a school community’s secret weapon. We see the whole child, we notice their victories and their challenges. And it’s how we respond that is important. I am talking about folks like —
Dropout Coordinator Cynthia Tercero-Sandoval from Arizona. She is the secret weapon in her district, fighting the cycle of poverty by keeping students from dropping out of school and connecting students to college aid.
Or Georgia’s Jeanette Kimber, a Substitute Teacher Coordinator who mentors students and helps at-risk youth through her volunteer activities with the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. She is a secret weapon, changing the paths of countless young women of color.
And Wisconsin bus driver Ted Chaudoir (show-DWAHR) who began a book sharing program on his bus that has since spread to the entire district’s buses, and inspired educators all over the country. He is a secret weapon contributing to student literacy and bringing his community together to support this important program.
Their stories are compelling, but what makes these men and women so special is their dedication to their students and their determination to rise above all odds, ensuring the success of their students.
So what does it mean for students to have us as their secret weapons for success? Let me tell you about special education paraeducator Nancy Burke from Massachusetts. Nancy’s commitment and creativity has helped her engage her students and pull the entire school community together with an accessible outdoor learning garden.
Nancy has a green thumb; she learned all about gardening from her father, starting at an early age. That’s what originally drew her to the project, which started after she attended a roundtable sponsored by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and funded by NEA—about developing farm-to-school programs.
After the conference Nancy wondered how many of her students had tasted fresh fruits and vegetables. She wondered if any of them had ever known the sheer delight of rolling in the grass on a warm sunny day or the joy of digging their hands into the soil.
Some of Nancy’s students have limited mobility and some have severe disabilities that keep them from speaking or learning to read. Many come from families living in poverty. Most had never even seen or been in a garden. Some had never even tasted fresh parsley or raspberries.
So Nancy came up with the idea of a learning garden – a space that would allow her students to go outside, breathe fresh air, see science, math, and art in action—and ultimately enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Now, many schools have gardens But Nancy’s garden is designed especially for students with disabilities. Everything is accessible to all students–whether they are in wheelchairs or have any other special needs.
To get her garden started and to keep it growing, Nancy leveraged her relationships in the school and community, and she stretched every penny. Her hard work and determination has paid off—her students are harvesting their own crops and eating food prepared with the ingredients grown in their own school garden! Nancy’s students are now tasting vegetables, fruits and herbs they’d never even heard of and are learning real-life skills like cooking, peeling and measuring. All skills and life lessons that would help them, long after their time at Haverhill (HAY-vrill) High. You see, she is their secret weapon for success. Because of the garden, special education students at Haverhill High are no longer “those kids over there.” Teenagers from all over the school – including the school’s star athletes spend time in the garden, hanging out, enjoying the outdoors and forming new friendships. A community has developed around the garden, with everyone playing their own role. For example, wood shop students built a shed, a bench and a mailbox so their friends in wheelchairs could more easily store their gardening tools. (slide)
Nancy’s idea and the efforts of the educators in the special education program have brought the entire school community together. The garden has changed the school culture—the 2016 Haverhill High graduating class decided to donate fifteen hundred dollars to the continued development of the learning garden!
But despite everything the garden program has done to engage students and unite the school community, Nancy still hears ‘you can’t do something like that. You’re just an ESP,’ or ‘you’re just an aide.’ But if she didn’t act, who would? Nancy knew how much her students would benefit from the garden. So Nancy built it. And she keeps building it by writing and submitting grant proposals and asking for discounts and donations from area seed companies and hardware stores for the supplies needed for her students’ garden.
The program has been so successful, Nancy’s principal has asked her to clean up and build gardens in another unused courtyard. The company that provides the school’s food services hopes to eventually purchase all the produce from the garden to use as ingredients in the breakfasts and lunches served to students.
You’d think that such good work would be free of obstacles, but there is no sustainable funding for Nancy’s garden program and she continues to experience resistance from other educators. But Nancy is unstoppable. She dreams of a pergola for shade and smooth slate tiles so wheelchairs can glide where there is currently grass and tree roots—and she will find a way.
Nancy isn’t “just an ESP.” In her students’ eyes, she’s a loving, caring hero. To her fellow ESP members, she is an example of the potential we all have as education professionals when we’re given the respect and space to lead. Nancy’s goal is to create awareness of how school gardens can change the culture of an entire school. She wants to help build accessible school gardens in every state because she’s seen the difference it can make. And I just know some of you are sitting there wondering how you can help.
Well, I’m glad you asked. Nancy has set up a gofundme page to help expand the garden program. Please visit the page at the address on the screen and help more students enjoy the gift of learning and gardening.
Nancy is just one person, challenging perceptions and pushing the boundaries of what education support professionals are expected to contribute. But we are everywhere, and we are partners in student success. You might not all think of us this way, but we are key allies in the fight against standardized testing and institutional racism. In fact, I’d like to give a shout out to all the educators who have fought against toxic testing at the local, state and national level.
We’ve been fighting over-testing and testing…and testing… because of the time and resources it takes away from our ability to teach, right? Because of the undue stress placed on our students. How many of you attended an event in the past two years to fight toxic testing – whether it be a school board meeting, a rally, or a lobby day?
You know who else experiences the negative impacts of overtesting on students? Education Support Professionals. Bus drivers see the stress or changes in behaviors as students board the bus on test day. Food service workers see the eating habits of their students change. Paraeducators see the students they work with hang their heads in frustration and help them wipe away their tears. Custodians, maintenance, security services and skilled trades workers see the impact too, because in many cases, they are a student’s one caring adult.
That’s why more and more schools are adding ESPs to professional learning communities. Our ESP members have key relationships with students because we are familiar faces in the school community. We shop at the same grocery stores, we attend the same churches and use the same services as our students and their families. We are, in many cases, our students’ secret weapon for success.
So, are ESPs included in your school’s whole student efforts? If not, why? Next time you’re on your way to a union meeting or event, ask an ESP to join you! Even if they’re already members, asking or including an ESP can make all the difference not only to an educator who sometimes feels invisible, but to the students we all serve. It’s smart to include us in your battles – we are secret weapons and a key ingredient!
ESP members doing amazing, student-centered work all over the country. Work like Nancy’s, that needs to be supported and encouraged by other educators, not impeded.
It is this exact reason–because we are so connected to our students, our families and our communities—that we are especially integral to a fight that we, as an organization, have agreed to address – the fight against the epidemic of institutional racism.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García reminds us: “Slavery was the original sin of our country that was founded in freedom. This great country began with slavery as an institution, and so many of the effects of slavery are still being unraveled in our public schools. This horrific foundation permitted us to not acknowledge the full humanity of the person sitting next to us. We educators are the greatest change agents in the country. Let’s rise to this challenge as only we can.” Institutional racism is every educators’ problem because it impacts our students and ESPs are allies in this essential work.
Institutional racism is the invisible thumb impeding the success of so many of our students. How can all of our students succeed if the very system designed to educate them continues to pin them down and stand in the way of their hopes and dreams? It’s a struggle all too many of our colleagues are personally familiar with— a third of ESP members identify as persons of color. So, it is of enormous benefit when ESPs are included in important discussions and professional development around identifying institutional racism, naming it and working toward solutions that will improve the experience of everyone in the school community.
But our work is constantly under threat because our jobs are being targeted by private corporations who put profits before students. Please close your eyes for a moment and recall a situation when an ESP came to the rescue for one of your students or helped with a crisis in your school. Picture in your mind the face of that support professional. Now picture what could’ve happened if that ESP wasn’t there in that situation. Would an outside contractor know to put an extra scoop of vegetables on the tray of a student that doesn’t know where or when his next meal is coming from? Would an outside contractor stay after school to fill backpacks full of food for students to eat over the weekend? Would an outsider comfort a crying student and walk them to the office?
For-profit companies are working with school boards all over the country promising to deliver school support services for less. How much “less” can we get? So many of us are stretched too thin and don’t even earn a living wage by working full time for our schools.
We’ve all read stories about the unsafe, unsanitary conditions these outsiders place our students in. And it has to stop. Please help us speak out against outsourcing at school board meetings. We need teachers to be our secret weapons. We need your stories, your passion and your numbers. If you see us picketing to fight outsourcing or for a living wage, pick up a sign and join the line. Please help us fight privatization and ensure every student has caring, qualified and committed educators in their schools.
ESPs support our students and schools, but ESPs need support too. We work two and three jobs so we can feed and house our own families. And many of us have been forced to make concessions to keep our jobs like having to pay 75% of our healthcare insurance premiums, which leaves us with not even enough money to fill our gas tank at the end of the pay period. We know that teachers are in the same boat, forgoing increases and making their own sacrifices. Together let’s advocate for paying all school employees a living wage.
We are a team working together for students…but we must work together. We are essential partners in student success and many of us just need a tap on the shoulder to get involved. The transformation work our schools need cannot happen without us. Many of you may have heard of Dr. James Comer. Dr. Comer came to our ESP conference in March and discussed his groundbreaking whole-school approach to school transformation. In 1968, Comer and his team went into two high-poverty schools in New Haven which needed help improving student achievement. There he created an experiment aimed at turning the school around. It worked. How? He created a school planning and management team that pulled together all the adult elements in and around the schools – parents, teachers, administrators and support professionals. This comprehensive plan focused on improving students’ social skills, as well as academics and featured professional development for all. It was built on the school’s values of consensus and collaboration. ESP were an essential part of this effort, which changed the culture of the school, shifting from a controlling, punishing environment to one that supported the development of children.
Sound familiar? Right now, nearly fifty years later, we are back in a similar place. So many of our schools are in a control and punishment culture. We need to change that culture to one that focuses on the whole student and development of children. And we need all hands on deck to do this work.
If we are to disrupt the cycle of racism and poverty in our schools, we must have everyone on board. If we are to take back our public schools from those who benefit from test-and-punish systems and implement ESSA the right way, we must have everyone on board.
We know our students are dealing with burdens that many of us never considered when we were children. In order to help students achieve despite those burdens, we must ensure each educator has the resources, mentoring, and support every professional needs. We know that by focusing on meeting the needs of the whole student and making sure each and every student is safe, healthy, engaged, challenged and supported, they can overcome so many of these burdens. It feels like we need a secret weapon.
As NEA Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss says, “We must knock down barriers of class, race and exclusion so ESPs, teachers, everyone can stand as one to ensure a great public school for ALL students. Stand up, stand tall, stand out. That is the kind of passion we must bring to organizing all members of our public education family.”
Amazing things can happen when education support professionals are treated as equals– as partners and allies in student success. We are more than partners, we are problem solvers. We are an untapped resource and we are here to support the whole student, the whole school and the whole community. We are the secret weapons…but now, the secret is out. For far too long, ESPs have been told to sit quietly on the sidelines. But we are there on the frontlines. We are an essential cog in the school community, a machine working for student success. So let’s work together in our unions and associations to take back public education from those who seek to profit from it. Let’s unite to change the negative narrative around public schools. We are all professionals working together for our students. And when we work together, we can’t be stopped.