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In the Lead

ESPs prepare to take on top Association roles.

By John Rosales

Meet your new Association leader. She’s prepared to lead and she understands the professional issues that you care about. She’s not a classroom teacher; she’s an education support professional.

With new leadership development programs and training offered by state Associations, ESPs are seizing opportunities to advocate for their colleagues, grow as leaders, and ascend to positions of great responsibility from Oregon to Delaware.

In New York, for example, professional development workshops and leadership training geared toward support staff – referred to as School-Related Professionals (SRPs) -- are offered through the week-long Education Learning Trust program. Also, several SRP locals are involved in the acclaimed Local Action Project, which stresses coalition-building and interacting with community leaders.

“These programs give SRPs a feeling of empowerment,” says Margaret MacCartney, SRP Coordinator for the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). “The more educated they become about union issues, the more confident they are about speaking out.”

They also gain the respect and admiration of fellow members with the “unique perspective that SRPs have about their work,” she says.

"School Related Professionals need to articulate the reality of living on their low salaries, as many [others] are not aware of this challenge," says MacCartney, who was a teaching assistant for 25 years before joining NYSUT 12 years ago.

One of the oldest and most reputable leadership programs in the nation is the ESP certificate program offered by the WEA Academy, a nonprofit corporation supported by the Wisconsin Education Association Council. Created in 1992, it offers broad-based curricula to ensure that ESP participants learn specific knowledge and skills applicable to the school environment and the Association.

From the Top: reflections from ESP Leaders Paula Monroe, Gail Rasmussen

As one of the nine elected members of the NEA Executive Committee, Paula Monroe from Redlands, California, has become NEA’s highest-ranking ESP, representing NEA’s 3.2 million members, approximately 17 percent of whom are support professionals (502,000). She knows first-hand how ready ESPs are to lead.

“Due to an increase in professional development opportunities and leadership training, ESPs are more prepared than ever before to represent not only their own constituency, but all NEA members,” Monroe says. “I think teachers realize that many ESPs have a system-wide knowledge of education and labor issues, not just those issues that affect ESPs.”

As more support professionals get elected to leadership positions, their visibility as advocates for public education increases.

“And because of this visibility and being great education ambassadors, the image of ESPs has greatly improved among educators in general,” says Gail Rasmussen, an ESP who wasrecently elected president of the Oregon Education Association.

Rasmussen and Sandy Arseneault of the South Dakota Education Association are the only two ESPs in the nation to serve as state Association presidents. There are four ESPs who serve as vice presidents.

Ready to Lead

When paraeducator Mike Hoffman ran for vice president of the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA), there were common themes to the questions he received: Was he familiar enough with teacher-oriented issues? Could he connect with all members in all parts of the state?

“I assured them that I had educated myself on the issues and could be a strong advocate for them,” Hoffman says. “It’s not whether you are an ESP or a teacher -- it’s about being an advocate, and knowing that you have the respect of your colleagues.”

It is also about being prepared. Hoffman not only spent eight years on the executive board of DSEA, but he also signed up for every leadership training workshop he could manage, including the prestigious national ESP program, Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT).

Hoffman credits LFT for bringing together talented ESPs from across the country to meet one another as well as to study bargaining techniques, contract language, lobbying, public speaking, and NEA governance.

“After LFT, they can go back to their states as confident leaders,” he says, “whereas before the program, they might not have believed they could run for office.”

Says Rasmussen, who served two terms as OEA vice president before being elected president, “as more ESPs participate in and complete leadership programs and gain skills to become successful leaders, confidence will increase, and the willingness to become involved will grow.”

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