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The Words Educators Crave to Hear

During American Education Week, the focus was students.

By Dave Arnold

A young student recently expressed to me the words that I think all educators live for: “I would have dropped out of school if it hadn’t been for you.” These are the joyful words that make grown men cry, that give educators a purpose to get out of bed on cold mornings, and which provide many of us with a reason for doing what we do.

That student’s comment tops all of the honors, awards and accolades I have been privileged to receive in my career as a proud education support professional (ESP).

For the Children

The children of our nation are our most valuable natural resource, and their education is their most valuable asset. I have always had a high regard for the benefits of getting a good education, but since I have became a member of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and the National Education Association (NEA), education has become my passion.

And nothing hurts me more than when I learn of a student giving up and dropping out of school. In my state of Illinois the dropout rate has climbed to nearly 25 percent. More than 85 percent of the state’s prison population is comprised of school dropouts. Is there a connection between being uneducated and ending up in prison? I think an argument can be made for limiting your job prospects and your future potential by leaving school without a diploma.

Simply put, if you dropout, you are throwing your life down the drain.

Get Involved

And you’ll get a variation of this theme in almost every community in the United States during American Education Week (November 16-20). Every year during this period, I create a poster with the “stay in school” theme.

The first one I made displayed a man sitting in a prison cell with the caption, “Some places don’t require a good education.” Another showed a man suspended from a parachute mid-air with the caption, “Life without education would be like skydiving without a parachute.” While those posters carried a hard-hitting punch, for the most part, I feel they fell on deft ears. I did receive some wonderful comments from a few students, however.

One on One

While I enjoyed working on the posters, you really can’t beat working with students one on one. As a participant in the School Transitional Environment Program, I work with students with learning disabilities, who generally do well in a work environment with a little guidance and supervision.

However, they tend to struggle academically and often become overwhelmed with the social challenges of high school. But, I try to convince them that though high school can be tough, life without a high school diploma will be brutal. I use the example of the number of inmates that are high school dropouts and show them that jobs which pay even minimum wage employers often require a high school diploma or equivalent.

Students Need Guidance

A few of these students listen to me while others ignore me and everyone else and drop out. One of those dropouts is now a resident of our state’s correctional system. Two of them are members of the national welfare system and the rest I hear about from students are working for minimum wage, some having earned their GED or equivalent.

One student working with me this past year told me of his struggles with homework and in the classroom. I helped him when I could, and always urged him to hang in there. I wasn’t sure that my message was getting through until he told me, “I would have dropped out of school if it hadn’t been for you.”

Every school employee makes a difference in the lives of children and sometimes that difference causes us to go wipe our eyes for a bit.

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(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.