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Get It in Writing

The right job description can make all the difference in how ESPs are viewed—and paid.

By John Rosales

The sleek, L-shaped desk where Madelaine Colas sits is the only one of its kind at her school. The entire unit was raised so that no one who enters the reception area can see material on her desk. Colas also has a privacy screen on her computer so only she, sitting directly in front of it, can see what’s there.

In her position, confidentiality is key. As the principal’s secretary at East End Elementary School in North Plainfield, New Jersey, every important school document crosses Colas’ desk—sensitive files involving salaries, medical leave, and family affairs; school budget items; and personal student records. “I deal with court orders and restraints,” says Colas, one of only two employees with keys to every lock in the building, including the principal’s vault.

Yet none of these details are mentioned in her job description. If they were, “I would qualify for Secretary IV,” says Colas, a Secretary III. “The board says I don’t qualify because I don’t have ‘confidentiality,’” says Colas, one of the North Plainfield Education Association members working with administrators to update job descriptions that haven’t changed since 1993. “I’d like to know who determines the definition of ‘confidentiality.’”

Madelaine "Maddie" Colas is working with administrators to update job descriptions from 1993.
Photo: Christopher Barth

New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) staff say Colas exemplifies the need for education support professionals (ESPs) to develop “results-oriented job descriptions” (ROJD), which not only describe what they do, but also what they accomplish (in other words, tasks and results). ROJD is not a tool to directly increase salary, but rather to promote employee involvement.
“Most [ESPs’] job descriptions today don’t identify their worth as employees,” says Vickie Hendrickson, an NJEA UniServ representative who makes presentations based on an NEA program addressing ROJD. “[ESPs] are more expendable when they’re not recognized for the actual jobs they perform. Traditional job descriptions fail to describe the skills and abilities needed by ESPs.” 

Hendrickson recalls recent cases where mimeograph machines (commonly used in the 1970s) and clutch pedals (on manual-transmission buses) are still listed in some job descriptions. Correcting the problem requires more than updating tasks, she says.

“We want to raise the level of respect for the work [support professionals] do and tie it to how it enhances student achievement,” says Hendrickson. “It’s [also] important to bridge the gap between job descriptions and evaluations.”

She says ROJD works best when Association members and administrators agree that ESPs’ work is the same as any teacher or administrator: to enhance student achievement. The model for the description-writing process is a six-step pyramid that stresses “active results” over “passive tasks”:

  1. List tasks performed both every day and periodically. Describe the activities, time requirements, and unique skills required to perform them. This list may be lengthy—a school district in Ohio, for example, listed 602 different tasks and skills for instructional paraprofessionals. Finally, compile a separate list showing how you’re qualified to perform these tasks.
  2. Define essential responsibilities. This is best achieved by using the following writing method: list your responsibilities, add the connector word “by,” and then list the tasks using the ending “ing.” For example, custodians don’t just clean the lavatory. They are responsible for maintaining pipes. This new description—“clean the lavatory by maintaining pipes”—transforms the passive “tasks performed” to the active “results accomplished.”
  3. Identify job purpose. It should match the school district’s goal—to enhance student achievement, for example.
  4. Enter job title, which is usually defined.
  5. Enter job category, based on your department or assignment area. For example, a bus driver’s category is “transportation.”
  6. Review the results.

"Once ROJD is finished here, it will show the board what we really do,' says Colas.

More information on ROJD can be found online for ESPs and for paraprofessionals.

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