As we read about “teacher” strikes across the country and the fight for better pay, smaller class sizes, sound infrastructure and adequate resources for schools, we don’t often hear about the paraprofessional and school support staff who also are walking the picket lines and making sure that children are cared for and their families fed during these walkouts. Paraprofessional and school support personnel are just as important as teachers and make just as much of a difference on strike day — and every day.
It’s not surprising that paraprofessional and support staff remain largely ignored during coverage of work actions. By definition, they work in a supporting role behind the scenes to make sure schools and colleges run smoothly, so sometimes they can seem invisible.
Paraprofessional and Support Staff Losing Pay
Classified employees, or paraprofessional and support staff, are most often paid hourly. In many cases, if they’re offered healthcare insurance, it’s unaffordable. The district often cuts back their hours just far enough so that they’re not eligible for any benefits. This differs from their teacher or administrative co-workers. So, when school is out for bad weather or building-related issues, paraprofessional and support staff lose pay, while their co-workers do not.
Paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians and secretaries are vital to their entire school or college communities. It’s important to acknowledge the work they do and to ensure they have the resources and respect they deserve.
Paraprofessionals assist students one-on-one and in groups, helping them master each lesson so they’ll pass their classes and graduate. They often act as informal social workers, mentors or coaches to students, leading a concerted effort to address students’ social and emotional needs and helping them prepare for life beyond school.
Bus drivers are usually the first school person a student sees in the morning and the last person at night. They navigate our roads and drive huge vehicles amid increasingly careless and distracted drivers. They need to be on time, know all sorts of emergency procedures, monitor students and keep their eyes on the road.
Custodians are jacks-of-all-trades, keeping school infrastructure intact and repairing locks, doors and furnishings of all kinds. They are tasked with the safety of all students and staff. These folks are also an example of excellence for students who may want to pursue the skilled trades. Students see custodians, HVAC specialists and groundskeepers working with their hands and doing electrical or plumbing duties throughout the school and will ask about their work.
These employees are not just pushing a mop and broom. Part of their role is building trusted and meaningful relationships with students.
Secretaries and clerks master specialized computer programs for the school to run effectively. They ensure that attendance, state coding and reporting of grades are timely and done properly. They schedule, plan events and work the front desk as a school’s first line of defense, as well as perform a myriad of other tasks, such as administering medication that used to be handled by school nurses.
Paying out of pocket
Research tells us that a hungry student is at a disadvantage academically. Kitchen staff members ensure that students are properly fed and have the energy they need to perform well throughout the day. Like teachers, they also spend their own money on students, while making a fraction of teachers’ salaries. Often this includes buying a student’s lunch; bringing in clothing, deodorant and other basic necessities; and providing classroom supplies.
Special education paraprofessionals perform many complicated medical duties for students who need them, such as administering Diastat during seizures and dealing with tracheotomy sites, colostomy bags, feeding tubes, urinary catheterizations and diabetic needs. Each student with a disability usually has several goals and objectives within his or her individualized education program, as required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But paras are not typically included in meetings and other key parts of the process. This undercuts the paras’ professionalism and harms students and teachers alike.
Recently, Congress passed and the president signed a bill that will require the U.S. secretary of education to recognize a paraprofessional and school support staff worker nationally every year. Consider nominating the outstanding paraprofessional and support staffers you know who would qualify.
All staff in schools and colleges are enduring more violence. Some teachers, paraprofessional and support staff are now leaving the profession because of it. Students and staff need to feel safe when they are at school. When these incidents occur, learning stops not only for the students involved, but for everyone. The level of stress felt afterward is immense and lasting.
Paraprofessional and Support Staff Needing Respect
I speak as a voice for paraprofessional and support staff across my state and the nation. Fortunately, I am a paraprofessional in the Macomb Intermediate School District, where, through my union’s collective bargaining, we have fair compensation and a degree of respect. Unfortunately, many other districts across the country have struggled or failed to recognize the value of their staff.
School paraprofessional and support staff are integral to our students’ education and to our schools’ academic improvement. Respect us, honor us and pay us a fair wage.
Jeff Whittle is president of the Macomb (Mich.) Intermediate School District Federation of Paraprofessionals. He also is vice president of AFT Michigan and serves on a national union board, the AFT PSRP program and policy council.
This blog post is re-published with permission from AFT Voices. Read the original post. To learn more about AFT's Schoolhouse Voices from PreK-12 public educators, visit: https://aftvoices.org/school-house-voices/home. Follow on Twitter @rweingarten or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/AFTunion.