Skip to Content

A New Ambassador for Support Professionals

2009 ESP of the Year Award goes to Kathie Axtell

Afterschool program creator, special education trainer, and union activist Kathie Axtell earned the National Education Association’s Education Support Professional of the Year Award at the annual 2009 ESP Conference in March. It was her first taste of national stardom for the soft-spoken but courageous paraeducator from the Olympia School District in Washington.

Since 1980, Axtell has worked with students who struggled with day-to-day assignments and trained others to help these students who need it the most. In addition to her work as a paraeducator, Axtell received a grant from WEA to create an afterschool program for Title I students. TOGETHER! is a nonprofit organization that provides programs to keep students from drugs and violence. Partners in the community for this afterschool program include community organizations, police and students.

Axtell spoke recently with NEA Today about her ideas and plans for the months ahead.

As the new ambassador for ESPs, you will be speaking at national and state conferences as well as making countless appearances at schools and NEA functions. What do you look forward to most in the coming year?

To speak with ESPs around the country. I know from ESPs in my state and school district that we have ESPs out there who are very thirsty for knowledge, and very knowledgeable. I look forward to talking with them not only as ESP of the Year, but mainly as a colleague. I am curious to learn what keeps ESPs from getting involved with the NEA and local PACs [political action committees].

What states do you hope to visit?

I look forward to learning the cultures of each state. I’m really looking forward to hearing about the issues from our various states and regions.

What changes have you seen in the ESP community since you started work as a paraeducator in 1979?

There have been some remarkable changes since I started. ESPs are starting to feel they can advocate for themselves. It’s amazing to see ESPs lobby for the first time. They didn’t always do that. I started with little-to-no training. My goal with my colleagues at the time was to get more training. The WEA and NEA have been very supportive regarding professional development. They give us the resources we need. [ESPs] have conferences now that promote professional development, networking, and conversation about politics—and about the importance of us being involved in politics. I don’t believe my colleagues hear about themselves enough from legislators. We have legislators who don’t have a clue about the importance of ESPs in our schools.

How so?

I don’t think [legislators] know the depth to which ESPs relate to students. Teachers have 29 kids in their class. ESPs have the opportunity for one-on-one time with students. The best part of my day is being on the playground talking with students. You learn how their life is going. Sometimes, it’s important for a teacher or counselor to know certain information, depending on what it is.

What values will you promote in your travels?

The message of advocating for yourself. Staff development. Becoming politically involved. ESPs tend to not vote sometimes. That’s a hard one to swallow. But one reason might be because they don’t see themselves at the table. For example, you only hear about teachers in the media. So, it’s difficult for ESPs to get involved. We have some who have more than one job. That pretty much says it all. Their time is limited. I’ll advocate for a living wage. The living wage issue is big in my state.

While NEA has more than 502,000 ESP members, there are still about 2 million more support staff working in our nation’s public schools. What can NEA do to recruit more ESPs?

Organize. We should be making every effort to organize those ESPs who don’t have the privilege of belonging to NEA. Get them involved in NEA activities. I was one of those ESPs who didn’t want to get involved. But I’m so glad I did. It’s amazing to go to Capitol Hill and the statehouse and talk with legislators and their aides. I was able to do that after I joined NEA.


2009 ESP of the Year

2009 ESP of the Year
Meet Kathie (in her own words) in this excerpt from WEA¹s video portrait of the 2009 ESP of the Year.

To see the full video of Kathie Axtell, visit the Washington Education Association site.