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2010 New Jersey ESP of the Year Speech

Anne Christiansen Has Passion for Advocacy

The following remarks were made by New Jersey Education President Barbara Keshishian at the NJEA ESP Conference June 5, 2010. Ann’s acceptance remarks follow.

… I am pleased to introduce our statewide ESP of the Year, Anne Christiansen. Anne is a one-on-one paraprofessional and member of the Hamilton Township Education Association in Atlantic County.

When she started this career path in 1993, Anne’s school district was in the practice of mainstreaming classified students into regular education classrooms.

As a parent of a multiply-disabled child, Anne felt that without the right preparation, this practice did not always work in the best interests of students with special needs.

She worked hard to build a partnership with teachers, her students, and their parents, so that successful inclusion became the norm.

Her unique perspective as a parent and educator calmed the fears of staff and parents alike. As a result of her work, she has become well known in her community as an expert in inclusion.

Anne’s creativity and patience inspire her students to thrive.

She wrote and directed puppet shows and live action programs with students classified as multiply disabled.

She introduced chess to a classroom of children classified as emotionally disturbed.

For the past six years Anne has worked with blind and visually impaired students. She is fluent in literary Braille and the Nemeth code for math and science.

Learning Braille was not enough for Anne, she wanted to know more. She found an online course offered by the American Braille Career School. She paid her own tuition and is working toward certification by the Library of Congress.

Her fluency in literary Braille has been a tremendous benefit for her school district’s blind and visually impaired students, as well as their teachers.

Parents also appreciate the fact that their children have access to services and materials equivalent and consistent with the general school population.

Anne always tries to build a positive and supportive relationship with her teacher colleagues and in turn is regarded by them as an equal.

Throughout her career, Anne has educated herself on special education issues and has become an expert in her district of over 70 paraprofessionals.

She established an online discussion site to help unite paraprofessionals and provide a forum to ask questions, share strategies, post helpful links, and network.

Anne’s involvement in her local association — the Hamilton Township Education Association — is strong. She has served as a paraprofessional representative, and as a member of the Executive Committee, Negotiations Committee, Legislative Action Team, and Unification Committee.

Her county involvement includes the Atlantic County Legislative Committee, Committee of 1000, and Delegate Assembly alternate.

At the state level Anne is a member of the NJEA Elections Committee and has been a delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly six times.

She is a role model for her students, her colleagues, and her members. And we are honored to call her an NJEA member.

So please join me in a warm welcome for NJEA ESP of the Year Anne Christiansen!

Ann’s remarks follow:

Thank you, Barbara.

Thank you all so much for your kind support. This event was originally scheduled for the last week-end in February, but a couple of forces of nature wreaked havoc on New Jersey. The good news is, the snow melted.

The other force of nature is continuing to inflict his vengeance on the children of New Jersey, and on many of us seated in this room.

Being chosen as New Jersey’s ESP of the Year is a tremendous honor and one I did not expect, Bar-bara can verify my genuine disbelief when she called me with the news.

To be given this award at a time when ESP positions and benefits are under threat of elimination or are already gone...

At a time when Support Personnel are bearing the brunt of short-sighted, panicked districts whose budgets failed and are now scrambling to cut spending even more...

At a time when over paid superintendents magically find hidden money in those bare bones budgets to create benefitted jobs for their cronies...

At a time when ESPs are specifically targeted because we lack the protection of tenure and are considered expendable by administration and, yes, teaching staff. To be chosen now is allowing me the unique opportunity to spotlight the positive contributions ESPs bring to the students of New Jersey every single school day and I am deeply grateful.

I’d like to thank Michele Yakopcic, Atlantic County President, and Diane Brunetti, Hamilton Township Education Association President, for nominating me.

I’d also like to thank Mary Jane Hurley, Atlantic County ESP chairperson, Lynn Casaleggio and the NJEA ESP committee for selecting me.

I am very grateful to Ken, my husband of 32 yrs, for his support and love, to my children, daughter Katie, her husband Matt and our son Andrew, all of whom are graduates of New Jersey Universities, Montclair State and Fairleigh-Dickinson, and to my beautiful son, Peter, whose brief life still inspires and motivates mine.

I’ve been working as a one-on-one special education paraprofessional for 17 years. I can’t speak for all ESPs or paraprofessionals, but when I applied for my first position in 1993, it was for one simple reason: the benefits.

We all know that you don’t go into education to get rich, but I was willing to accept the low salary in exchange for the benefits—a reality that members of our Legislature and our Governor still fail to understand.

In 1993, I didn’t realize that I was about to be-come not only an educator, but more importantly, a student and that I would receive benefits far above and beyond those offered by my employers.

When I was a kid the family that lived next door had 12 children, 10 girls and 2 boys. One of the girls, Maria, was born with Down syndrome. In the early 60’s children like Maria didn’t go to public school, if they went to school at all, the family taught Maria at home. Eventually she entered a sheltered workshop and is working there today.

I remember one Saturday being in their kitchen at lunchtime and hearing Maria say the word, “toast”. One word, one syllable was proclaimed as a triumph! It was just “toast”, but “toast” was a monumental achievement for Maria.

And 45 years later I like to think of this event as my moment of clarity. I had shared a deeply personal moment of love with my neighbors, the enormity of which would not be made known to me until I became the parent of a child with disabilities.

Fast forward to the fall of 1981. My 3-yr-old son, Peter, is bedridden and dying. A genetic birth defect, that my husband and I carry, has robbed him of everything; sight, speech, ambulation; he is tube-fed and heavily medicated to relieve his spastic muscles.

Losing or grieving for a child is every parent’s nightmare. We have all shuttered at the thought of the phone call in the middle of a dark and foggy night or the catch in your stomach when you allow your adolescent child to go to the mall without know the feeling. On Friday, October 23, 1981, before dawn, Peter Jacob left his sick body and began a new life. His struggle was over.

We’d like to believe that our world is predictable, controllable and manageable, but we live in a world where sometimes bad things happen to good people.

Having a child with a disability brings challenges and adjustments that impact the family and community as well. Having some help and understanding with this process can make it less painful and even rewarding.

I can empathize with the parents of my students, and that unique perspective has enabled me to gain their trust. They know that I will advocate for their child in order to allow a positive learning experience and I have built my career upon this truth.

I love what I do and I will continue to try and inspire my co-workers and my community with the energy and devotion I have for the students to whom I am assigned.

But the lessons I’ve learned are not all somber ones. There have been many light-hearted moments as well and I’d like to share one with you.

I was working in a self-contained classroom with multiplied disabled students whose disabilities ranged from high functioning autistic to severely retarded—although I hate that word, it's vital to the story, so please bear with me.

Occasionally, the students spoke about their disabilities, not just to us, but to each other. One day a girl with PDDNOS—a less severe form of autism—was getting on some of the boys’ nerves.

One boy turned to her and said, "Stop acting so retarded!" Offended, the young lady quickly replied, "I'm autistic. I'm not retarded like Abraham".

She was referring to a student with Down’s syndrome, whose speech, because of his disability, was difficult to understand.

And without missing a beat, Abe very loudly and clearly declared, "Yes you are!"

I’ve learned that our special students have so much more to offer than what meets the eye. So do paraprofessionals. We are unsung heroes.

We build trusting relationships with teachers, students, and parents. Most of all, we understand that being a successful one-on-one paraprofess- sional requires a willingness to step back and allow the student to step forward and become indepen-dent.

It’s my belief that paras have been a part of the classroom long enough to be paid a decent living wage. Our starting salary should begin where it currently ends, and the top of our salary guide should end where a teacher’s begins.

My colleagues will tell you that I will continue to advocate for that to happen until I can no longer speak.

However, I urge my fellow paras to grab that first rung in moving up the career ladder. I encourage you to earn degrees and strive to become teachers for the district you work in.

But my passion for advocacy does not stop there.

I’m a firm believer in doing what it takes to ensure that all ESP members are consistently and loudly recognized for the worth they bring to their school districts.

Don’t be afraid to “toot” your own horns… because we are most definitely worth it.

And encourage your colleagues to do the same.

I challenge you all to enroll in leadership training; not only does it help to keep you involved in your local; it introduces you into the inner workings of the association. How better for you to ensure your voice is heard in your district?

Because I have learned that if we begin to speak with ONE voice in solidarity, we will definitely be the loudest out there.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with this…there is a Buddhist proverb which speaks of patience, perseverance, and perception.

I believe these are qualities found in good students and also in the best of teachers. It says, and I’ll paraphrase, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”.

As the student, I’m honored to have been taught by the following exceptional teachers:

Thank You