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Keeper of the Flame

ESP Heike Janis was elected president of her inclusive local with strong teacher support.


By John Rosales

In choosing a new president, members of the Ferguson-Florissant NEA (FFNEA) in St. Louis County, Missouri, wanted a savvy leader who could uphold their statewide reputation as being a strong, inclusive local where teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) work as partners.

“We’ve always held that local up as a model wall-to-wall,” says Chris Guinther, president of Missouri NEA. “They are united, and as such they are powerful.”

Wanting to continue this proud tradition of teamwork and advocacy, FFNEA’s 840 teachers and almost 200 ESPs recently elected ESP Heike Janis to serve as their president.

“We have leaders and volunteers who have guided us through 37 years and I want to keep the momentum going,” says Janis, an office manager who has worked at Ferguson-Florissant School District for 14 years.  “I want to show that all of us -- certified, ESP and administrators—are better when we work together.”

When Janis started considering a run for president, “the teachers were as supportive as my fellow ESP members,” she says. In fact, it was a teacher who nominated Janis.

“Heike is a problem-solver and has follow-through,” says Elizabeth Harris-Fales, the teacher who nominated Janis. “If Heike tells you she is going to work on a task or issue you can rest assured that she will.”

Harris-Fales also admires Janis as a confident public speaker and devoted educator who holds herself accountable for her actions.

“She does not make excuses,” says Harris-Fales, a first-grade teacher who has collaborated with Janis on Association projects for six years. “Heike is able to connect with others quickly and has a friendly demeanor that puts people at ease.”

But she’s “not afraid to speak up for members,” says Guinther.

“To be a strong leader you have to think of all of your members,” she says. “Heike understands that it takes all of us to educate our kids and serve our community.”

Guinther knows Janis from years of attending the same state and regional meetings and national conferences, including several NEA Representative Assemblies and ESP conferences.

“I saw from the beginning that Heike was eager to learn about the Association,” she says. “She wanted to know about all aspects of how the organization is run.”

Janis says her curiosity about how organizations function stems in part from her education in Germany, where she was born, earned a business school degree, and completed an internship at the German Minister of Interiors Department.

The development of her leadership and organizational skills came later, she says, after joining FFNEA and becoming a building representative. Her success in that role led to her election as a member of the Missouri NEA’s executive board and a participant in the organization’s Summer Leadership Academy.

“It has definitely been a learning experience,” says Janis, who moved to the United States in 1986 and began her career at Ferguson Middle School in 1996 as an audio-visual aide before advancing to office manager in 2000. Her current position helped boost her confidence to run for president.

“I have an opportunity as an office manager to know and work with individuals across the district,” says Janis, a mother of three.

Since beginning her one-year term this month, Janis says state funding shortfalls, educator layoffs, and legislative attacks against education have been her biggest concerns.

“The ongoing discussions about ESEA and Race to the Top will also present significant challenges for all public school stakeholders,” says Janis, who will use Facebook and other social media to organize and communicate with members.

“I plan to create a Facebook account that will be accessible to all members of our local and other locals, Missouri NEA, and NEA,” she says. “We already have a website ( and a teacher who volunteers as a webmaster.”

As an ESP, Janis has a learning curve, says Harris-Fales, especially when it comes to particular issues affecting teachers.

“It is the same learning curve that certified leaders have to experience when advocating for ESP members,” she says.

“Certified leaders have to talk with ESP members to understand an ESP issue, which is no different for an ESP leader having to consult with a teacher to gain insight into their particular issues,” Janis says. “I know that when I need information, I have certified and ESP members ready to talk, listen, and teach one another.”

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