Remarks as prepared for delivery by Matthew Cory Powell, 2019 NEA Education Support Professional, to the 98th NEA Representative Assembly

George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston, Texas

Thank you NEA Delegates and Guests!

Thank you Lily, Becky, and Princess for the opportunity to speak today.

It truly is an honor and privilege to stand before you as your 2019 NEA ESP of the Year

I’d like to take a moment to congratulate all of the 2019 ESP of the Year State nominees for their tireless work, passion, and commitment to their schools, communities, and students.

To the Kentucky Education Association and the Kentucky Education Support Professionals Association, thank you for your continuous support.

I also want to thank Stephanie Winkler, Lisa Petry-Kirk, Eddie Campbell, Debbie Chandler, Dr. Hazel Loucks, and my LFT Class of 2016 for contributing to my growth as a leader. I would not be standing here today without the power of your example…

I want to extend a special thanks to my former school superintendent, Kim Dublin and my school principal Tiffany Williams for recognizing the work that I do and for being supportive when I am away on union business.

Most of all, I want to thank my custodial staff, students, faculty, and fellow ESPs at Graves County Central Elementary. We work hard. But more importantly, we all work together to ensure that every student has the opportunity to reach their full potential. I’m honored to work with fantastic students and staff in our National Blue Ribbon School.

I absolutely love being an ESP. What very few know is that I always aspired to become a teacher. However, after graduating college, I realized that I wanted to contribute to the learning process that goes on beyond the four walls of a typical classroom.

I have the best of all worlds because my classroom is on the bus, in the cafeteria, on the playground, in the halls, at the outside Koi fishpond, and many other places around the school. My “class” includes all 538 of the students in my school. In my work as an ESP, I can instill the learning process in everything that I do and advocate for my profession at the same time.

I strive to promote learning and excitement in all that I can whether it is learning ecosystems or the water cycle at the koi fish pond, to life skills and character traits in the café, hall or on the bus. I have 5 beliefs that I follow daily to ensure that all my students are successful.

I’d like to share them with you. I believe:

  • ALL STUDENTS can learn and rise to high expectations.
  • Everything I do should be STUDENT-CENTERED.
  • All educators influence student learning. Students learn more when authentically engaged.
  • As a team, educators, parents, and communities help students reach their greatest potential.
  • TEAMWORK is an important factor in the success of a positive school culture, and it takes everyone working together to meet the needs of the whole child.

We often hear that ESPs are the first person students see when they get out of the car or off of the bus in the morning. But we also engage with students all throughout the day and are usually the last person to see them when school ends. In my school, you will often see myself and other ESPs greeting students with a big smile, fist bump, a hug or a high five. As educators, we do all we can to transform ordinary moments into extraordinary opportunities to make a difference in a student’s life.

Please indulge me for a moment as I would like to highlight some amazing educators who helped me become the man and educator I am today.

Mr. Victor, my school custodian. He always showed up after school to my violin concerts and lessons. He would even stay after school or come back to school to watch me perform at my concerts. He was always smiling, laughing, and had that exciting tone in his voice that made me feel as if I should be playing inside Carnegie Hall.

[Mrs. Debbie, my school “lunch lady.” She was the one who would always have a pocket full of change and would buy students extra items and snacks. She made the most delicious chocolate oatmeal cookies as special treats for her students. Every Wednesday was Chicken Nugget day and she would know to give me extra BBQ sauce because I always had to have extra for my chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes. She would dress up in costumes for special events and knew every student by name. My greatest memory during my 6 years with Debbie was her dressing up in a cow costume and roller skating through the cafeteria while drinking milk.

Mrs. Gaye, my school bus driver. I was the first student to get on her bus every morning and she gave me the responsibility to make sure that the bus was okay. She knew that the bus was the only way that I could get to school because my mother had already left for work. She would go the extra mile to make sure I was on the bus. Even so much that my attempt to skip school one morning was a huge bust when she pulled into my driveway and exited the bus to come up to the door. If a school bus could be magical, her 1990 manual transmission bus was it.

Mrs. Green, my third and fourth grade teacher. Mrs. Green created a learning environment that was engaging, challenging, and exciting. I always remember wanting to become a teacher just like her. She had a beautiful voice that allowed her to create a song for anything. I have the honor to work alongside her every day and every time I enter her class, it brings back memories from my time in her class.

What these educators really did was create an atmosphere where I felt supported, fed, and safe. They created an environment for me to enjoy and thrive in school. They had different roles, but they seized their unique opportunity to make a positive difference in my life. I believed – no, I KNOW – they cared about me and THAT made a lasting impact on my life. Educators leave a lasting impact on us, our children, our families and our neighbors, especially during times when our communities need the most support.

When you look at this picture, what do you see? Some will notice the beautiful rainbow glowing above our school. But when I look at this photo, I see the after effect of trauma that no educator would ever wish for them or their students. On May 10, 2016, moments before school was scheduled to dismiss, a tornado came within a few hundred yards of hitting my school. While it came without warning until the seconds counted, my fellow colleagues and I were able to spring into action and implement our severe weather plan to ensure the safety of every student and educator in our building.

Although the tornado missed my school, it devastated my community and ripped apart many of my student’s homes. In the aftermath, our educators continued to do all that we could to help the community recover, including assisting our school Family Resource Youth Service Center to collect and deliver supplies and to offer help to our students and their families.

I share these stories—those of the educators who positively impacted my life and that of the way in which I now have the chance to positively impact students – for more than a trip down memory lane. I share them because I want to remind all of us of the influence and power we have in the lives of our students, in our schools, and our communities. That power is available to each and every one of us, every day, in big ways and in seemingly small ways.

ESPs have valuable experience and expertise that should inform our schools about decisions made inside our schools. We know our students well and many of us live in the community where we work.

We deserve a seat at every table where policies and decisions are made that impact OUR work, OUR students and OUR communities that we serve. We’ve all seen the power of educators leading a movement of change. We’re all familiar with the #RedForEd movement where educators have demanded improved policies and resources to support students and educators, but did you know that just a few months ago, we celebrated another big win when Congress passed the RISE Award Bill and established the first-ever federal recognition ofESPs. This victory would not have been possible without the educators who reached out to members of Congress and shared their voice. It was an amazing achievement, but one that was long overdue. We still have more battles to confront to ensure that ESPs are respected for the critical role we play in meeting the needs of every student. Like for all educators, this respect is visible when we are treated as the professionals we are—when we receive access to more funding, more opportunities, and more resources that help us support our students and grow professionally throughout our careers. Sisters and brothers, I thank YOU for supporting ESPs—you have done so in big ways – but I also ask that we continue to stand strong as ONE education team, and ONE union, to build great public schools for every student across our nation.

In closing, I’d like to share one of my favorite quotes by Helen Keller. “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

Fellow educators, together, we must keep using our collective voice and telling our stories to elevate our profession and demand what we need for our students. Never forget, we are the experts when it comes to public education. And never forget that “together we can do so much.”

THANK YOU ESPs, and THANK YOU NEA!!