A Tale of Two Paychecks
Why is my paraprofessional classroom work valued so low?
By Jean Fay
Photos by John Polak
I have a wonderful job. As a public school paraprofessional, I help teach kindergartners to read.
One arrived in September with a very limited grasp of English. Attempts to coax him into writing even the first letter of his name usually ended in frustration and tears. But I made sure he knew I wasn’t going to give up on him. Slowly, he began writing one letter, then three, then all the letters in his name.
Recently, I read the class one of my favorite books, Shoe Shoe Baby! by Katherine Lodge, a cute story about a girl who loves shoes—a girl after my own heart. My student noticed the miniature high-heeled shoe I wear on a chain around my neck and said to me, Just like Shoe Shoe Baby! He had connected text to an image—the light bulb going off over his head was so bright, I almost needed sunglasses.
A wonderful job.
But the pay is low. So I also work part-time in the jewelry department at JCPenney.
When I compare my two paychecks, I am saddened to realize that even though one check is for part-time and the other is for a full-time position, the dollar amounts aren’t that different.
It is puzzling to me that our society doesn’t value and reward the important work that many of us education support professionals (ESPs) do.
ESPs teach children to read, to make connections, to ask questions. We comfort children when they are sad or hurt. We encourage them in everything they do, and celebrate all their accomplishments. We do all these things with dedication and love.
Recently, I had two wonderful encounters with former students. The first was with a now very grown-up first-grader who often visits me at my jewelry counter. This time she came with a gift, a small toy—”for your classroom”—bought with her own money. She cared enough about her former classroom to want to give something back.
The second was with a student from my very first group of kindergartners. She is now a senior in high school, and wanted help with a project for her photography class. She knew I was politically active, and asked for advice on getting good election night photos. I invited her to attend an election night function with me, and later introduced her to our state legislators and U.S. representative. She took wonderful photos, and her mother informed me later that she received an A.
As I look at my two paychecks and think about my two very different jobs, I wonder what is valued more—selling jewelry or teaching children?
We need to think about how we compensate our ESPs for the enormous contributions they make. I will keep telling whoever will listen, whether it’s a legislator, school board member, or taxpayer, that we can do better, and I encourage others to do the same.
Jean Fay works at Crocker Farm School in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is a 2010 graduate of the NEA ESP Leaders for Tomorrow program.