Minneapolis Convention Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
I stand here today as a proud NEA union member and someone who owes a great deal to so many people, many of whom should be standing here with me today.
I truly am grateful for this honor.
I’d like to acknowledge the NEA delegates who come here year after year to debate and shape our policies and priorities so that we can become a better, stronger, and smarter organization for our members and our students.
To my extended family and the people who always give me a soft place to land…my local president, Karen Salisbury, the Executive Board, and my fellow colleagues of the Matanuska-Susitna Classified Employees’ Association…
To NEA-Alaska’s President, Tim Parker…you have been an incredible role model, leader, friend and mentor for me. Thank you…
And last but not least, I want to thank my amazing students at Tanaina Elementary School. Without them, I would not have the strength to do what I do nor would I be standing here today.
They couldn’t be here with me so I brought some photos so you could see their beautiful faces.
They are my why and the reason I do what I do.
As I was walking up to the podium, I’m sure most of you were probably wondering, “Why does Sherry have a backpack?”
If there is one thing our students bring with them to school every single day, it is a backpack. Imagine carrying a 100 pound backpack around all the time. That would be about the equivalent to the baggage some students are carrying around that we don’t see:
- The trauma of poverty and exposure to violence
- Insecurity, loss, hardship, and neglect
- Instability in their homes and communities
They don’t leave these experiences at home.
They bring them with them. And then they show up in our classrooms, in our hallways, on our busses, and in our cafeterias in all kinds of ways. There is no room for a math or science book. There is no room for learning. They are just trying to figure out how to survive the day.
I was one of those kids with a heavy backpack. School was tough, but you know what I had? I had a teacher, an ESP, and a coach who helped me unload my backpack and refill it, with empathy, love, respect, grit, drive, and tools to be successful.
As educators, we’ve seen it all: Some students lash out. Some tune out. Some are preoccupied, impulsive, unable to concentrate, distrustful or nervous.
When we see these students, we need to ask ourselves: what’s in their backpack? And at the end of the day, it’s our job to do what I call: “crack the code” of our students’ world.
In my many years as an educator, I have learned that in order to pull a child out of his or her world, I had to get into theirs.
Roman was in my fifth grade class when I met him. He had a severe case of autism and his parents were told he would never read or function in everyday life.
But there was one thing he loved and that was Star Trek.
That’s all he knew or cared about.
That was the only language he spoke.
That was his world.
And then I had to learn about the various spinoffs—if you’re a Trekkie you know there are quite a few of them…
I even wore the blue star trek uniform that Commander Spock wore and I learned his peace sign.
Yes, I did my homework. Was it tough? Yes. Was it exhausting? Yes. But was it worth it? Absolutely.
“I had to boldly go where no one had gone before” with this student (and all my students) because that was the only way I could crack the code of his world and begin to see it through his eyes.
After months of building a relationship and trust with him, he started to open up. And after a few more months, something started to click. He began to separate the fiction of Star Trek and the nonfiction that is the world. He was reading. He was talking. He was able to grasp reality.
I am so proud of Roman and his continued progress. He just graduated eighth grade and in the fall, he will be starting at a career and technical high school where he is the only special education student.
Now, his backpack is a little lighter, because he is stronger.
There are a million stories just like this one all across the nation.
Stories of ESP who are experienced and committed, educated, and well trained.
Stories where ESP show their deep care and love for their students and their success.
Stories of impact in the classroom, but also on the bus, in the hallway, the cafeteria.
And stories where our work demonstrates that what we do is more than a job, but a career, and a passion.
That’s why I am so excited about the release of the ESP Professional Growth Continuum, a document created by ESP for ESP to identify universal standards of professional practice that contribute to student-centered learning environments.
With the launch of the professional growth continuum and with the continued emphasis in leadership development, we have the opportunity to own our professional learning journeys. This is clearly an exciting and important time for ESP professionalization!
WE – Education Support Professionals, teachers, and other specialists in the building – WE collectively love and care for our students, providing for their safety, welfare, and learning.
And despite the pain and struggle of everything we go through, we get up every morning before the sun rises and do our jobs. And do them well, I might add. We care for our kids. We nurture them. We love them. We educate them. We challenge and guide them. Whether others believe it or not, we create and touch the future in our own way. No one can ever take that away from us, no matter how hard they try. And if they do, we will fight back and stand proud of who we are.
As the association and the country moves forward we must continue to have an abiding faith in who we are and what we believe. No matter if we drive the bus, serve the food, clean the halls, or support our teachers, we cannot allow the winds of indifference to sway us away from our beliefs and values.
Take a moment to look around you. These are your brothers and sisters. If anyone has walked in your shoes, they certainly have. They know how you feel after a day’s hard work. They share your story of working two and three jobs to make ends meet and to support your family. They understand the anxiety of privatizers knocking on our school doors. They have felt unappreciated and disrespected.
But they also know your strength. They’ve seen your courage. They know why you chose the field of education as a career. And more importantly, they know that you are not a quitter and that no one owns your destiny but you.
This is why we must continue to support and stand with one another. We must continue to be united, engaged and involved at all levels of the association, much like our colleagues in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and North Carolina have. And we must continue to let our voices be heard all over this great nation, from Alaska all the way to Washington, DC.
Together, we must do all that we can to ensure that ALL educators are valued and honored – without whose labor and sacrifices great public schools could never exist. Most of us will never make the headlines and our names will never be marked in the halls of fame.
But if we work together, we can achieve our vision. Years from now, when people take the time to look back on this incredible moment in history, they will know and learn about us. They will know that we stood strong and sacrificed much for a cause greater than our own.
Thank you NEA. Thank you teachers. And most of all, thank you my fellow ESP!