Conference Lifts ESP Voices, Roles, Strength

If knowledge is power, then MEA member Timmery Foster figures she is helping to make a stronger union by attending this year’s ESP Statewide Conference.

Not only did the Howell paraeducator spend time attending sessions at the conference for Education Support Professionals – held virtually this year because of the pandemic – but she also is gathering credits toward professional certification through MEA’s Center for Leadership & Learning.

Getting recognition for completing credit hour and course requirements feels good, but she is mainly pursuing certification for her students, Foster said as she wrapped up a Saturday session that summarized various professional development channels for ESP through MEA and NEA.

“I’m learning so incredibly much through these opportunities. I’ve wanted to continue education and learn as much possible, so that hopefully the kids I interact with get the best possible support and the best ‘me’ I can be.”

Sessions were free to members, beginning with an opening General Session that presented this year’s Leon A. Brunner Award winner, Becky Lesh, a bus driver and local president in Waterford. In addition, longtime bus driver and statewide ESP leader Jim Sparapani was inducted into MEA’s ESP Hall of Fame.

The conference offered training on topics ranging from bargaining to legal issues, organizing, communication, and professional learning. Roy Freeman, a custodian in Dowagiac and MEA’s ESP Caucus President, told attendees in the opening session to never forget that without ESP, schools could not operate.

“They could not operate without your knowledge and your dedication and your desire that you put in day in and day out. We are the frontline workers. We are out there, regardless of what happens, on the premises, doing the work, making sure that our places are ready for our students.”

Theresa Such, a paraeducator who runs a multi-purpose room for in-school detention and tutoring in Lansing’s Waverly district, said she was happy to learn that she completed requirements for certification with the credits she received from the conference. She started down the path several years ago simply for the joy of learning.

Such said she comes from a family of educators, including both parents and a sister, and she loves working with students who have behavior difficulties and often respond to her one-on-one attention and listening ear.

“It’s part of my upbringing that you keep going, keep learning, keep increasing your tool box,” Such said. “It is so beneficial to every aspect of my job.”

Professional learning session leader Robyn O’Keefe, president of the Birmingham Association of Paraprofessionals, said this past year has cast light on the importance of custodians, maintenance employees, paraeducators, food service workers, clerical employees, bus drivers—all educators.

“So many of you made sure that students were connected to their virtual learning, that students who were missing were found, that students who were hungry were fed, that students who needed supplies got those,” O’Keefe said. “You went above and beyond to make sure students could keep learning under these unimaginable circumstances.

“Across the country there are almost three million of us in our public schools and colleges. We’re a huge community that has a huge impact on what happens in education, and the quality of education our students receive, and we need to constantly be elevating the conversation around our role.

“One out of every three education employees is an ESP,” O’Keefe concluded. “We are educators, and we are an integral part of the education of our students and meeting the needs of the whole child.”


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