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Classroom Superheroes

Off to Save the Day

Stephanie Walter

According to Stephanie Walter, when she was invited to meet President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan she didn’t have a particular political message to convey. Her story isn’t about Democrats or Republicans.

“I just want my job back,” she says.

In May, she was laid off from her position at Jefferson County Joint Vocational School in Amsterdam, Ohio. She had taught English for 17 years.

Walter was earning about 70 percent of her family’s income. Now she is substitute teaching and earning about one quarter of her previous salary. She is also teaching at a community college, and her husband works construction, but they worry that it’s not enough to raise their two children.

Walter’s story is an example of what many educators and parents around the country are facing, and because of that, it attracted the attention of the White House—which was advocating for a new jobs bill—and NBC Nightly News. When she received a phone call from a television producer, she told them that it was a bad time because she had to take her daughter to soccer practice, and then she was planning on baking cookies with her children.

She emphasizes that her story is part of a systemic problem. Politicians have been talking about improving public education at the same time they are cutting resources. For two years, Walter taught her classes without textbooks.

The media and political spotlight has been exciting, she says, and earned her a trip to Washington, D.C. But at the end of her trip, her mind was still on how she was going to pay her bills.

“I made good money last year,” she says. “Now I’m wondering if we should call for public assistance food cards.”

—Will Potter

Jayna Ennis

End-of-the-year trips for graduating students are a tradition in many districts across the country, including Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation in Indiana. But because of budget cuts, this year’s eighth-graders at McGary Middle School in Evansville were going to be the first class to miss out on the tradition. That’s when Jayna Ennis, a clerical assistant at the school, stepped in.

Ennis, who works a second job at a local Baskin Robbins, decided to organize a “Scoop Night” to raise money. With her manager’s permission, she rallied a team of McGary staff and administrators to serve ice cream to the community. Students, parents, district leaders, and community members stopped in for a scoop, raising the  $400 needed for an end-of-the-year trip.

Thanks to Ennis’s efforts and the dedicated staff at McGary, the students enjoyed a 7-mile canoe trip on the Blue River at Marengo Cave. Many had never been on the water before, much less canoeing for such a long distance.

McGary was once one of the lowest performing schools in the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation, where nearly 90 percent of the students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. Selected as one of the district’s Equity Schools, as well as part of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, the school is undergoing an impressive transformation.

—Amy Buffenbarger

Brittany Desnoyer

When most children ask for a bedtime story, they expect fairy tales or picture books. But Brittany Desnoyer grew up with articles about students with reading disabilities; her mother was a busy special education teacher who finished coursework in the evenings and still found time to volunteer helping children with special needs. From an early age, her mother’s devotion to teaching and special needs students inspired Desnoyer.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher—there was really no plan B,” she says.

Desnoyer stepped into the classroom for her first year of teaching last fall. She is just a few classes shy of earning her own master’s in special education from Michigan State.

There’s just one thing keeping this devoted new teacher from finishing her degree: Because of district budget cuts, she was laid off from her dream job this spring.  “I was pretty devastated,” she says.

Now Desnoyer is putting off completing her master’s because she knows it will force school districts to pay her more, making her a less desirable new hire. She’s spending the summer working part-time, and has turned the work ethic she learned from her mother to a new pursuit—job hunting.

—Rebecca Bright

Lee Dorman

It’s almost as though Lee Dorman has always juggled two jobs: The seventh-grade science teacher from Arlington, Virginia, has been an educator for more than 40 years, and a political activist even longer.

As a high school junior in 1963, Dorman attended the march in D.C. that culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  “We went for the music—I didn’t even know who Dr. King was at the time,” she says. “But once we got there, it transformed us.” The event inspired her to march for civil rights and protest the Vietnam War in the years to come.

As a dedicated educator of 40-plus years, Dorman has focused much of her activism on public education. She has served her local education association in every position. She helped negotiate contracts for Arlington County teachers in the 1970s, and has been a building representative for four decades. 

“We forget that the NEA is built on volunteers. If you think about it, it’s really awesome that we have so many people who will volunteer their time,” says Dorman. “It gives you hope and the strength to go on.”

—Rebecca Bright

Regina Richardson

On a steaming hot July day in the nation’s capital, Regina Richardson and her friend and colleague Tanya Dunbar joined thousands of other educators in the “Save Our Schools” march calling for equitable funding for public schools and an end to high-stakes tests used to determine whether schools are making “adequate yearly progress” under the so-called “No Child Left Behind” law.

“I went to the march because I wanted to be included with teachers in this fight,” says Richardson, who is a special education instructional assistant in Arlington County, Virginia.

“No Child Left Behind is leading kids, including many of the special education students I work with, to drop out of school if they find they can’t pass the test. But not all kids are on the same level. Some of them can’t pass.”

Richardson is working with Dunbar and other Arlington ESPs to increase ESP membership and activism in the Arlington Education Association. She wants to organize a working committee representing all categories of ESPs, because “one person can’t represent everybody.”

This year, she was named Employee of the Year among the instructional assistants in all 25 Arlington schools.

—Alain Jehlen

Photo by: Mary Thornton

Sam Phillips

Before Sam Phillips started fighting for grown-ups, he fought for students.

Phillips is American Indian and a maintenance employee in the Potter Valley Community Unified School District, a small, rural K-12 district north of San Francisco. His daughter had disabilities and he felt she wasn’t getting the attention she needed at school. “They put her in a room with a total stranger, and when she didn’t respond, they decided she was mentally retarded,” recalls Phillips. He got involved and got her education back on track (she has since graduated and is doing well in community college).

Soon, other Indian parents came to him for assistance. Phillips found that, too often, Indian children were placed in special education when the real problem was the staff’s lack of familiarity with their students’ culture. Phillips says administrators have generally been cooperative. “Once we shone a light on the situation, they did the right thing,” he says.

Next, Phillips started helping education support professional colleagues win fair treatment, first as grievance chair, and then as president of the Potter Valley Classified Employees Association. He persuaded the administration to give the staff a first crack at extra hours instead of allowing managers to hire friends to do union work.

Stephanie Bearden, president of the teachers association in Potter Valley, says, “He always has something positive to say. He’ll see a kid who’s down and stop and talk to him.”

Phillips credits NEA leadership training programs for much of his success. In 2010, the California Teachers Association named Phillips ESP of the Year.

—Alain Jehlen

Darianne Nelson

Photo by Don Stolley

In the past year, Darianne Nelson has become accustomed to traveling from one school to the next—one memorable morning, she visited all five of the elementary schools in her district within a two-hour period. As the lone elementary media specialist in Wisconsin’s Watertown Unified School District, Nelson is responsible for 1,500 students. When she started this job nine years ago, she shared those duties with two other media specialists.

As in many districts around the country, a dwindling budget has forced Watertown to forgo hiring certified staff to fill positions like Nelson’s, in favor of lower-paid education support professionals.

“I work with three wonderful paraprofessionals and I’d be lost without them, but there are still things that a certified media specialist can bring to the program.”      

“I’m there to guide kids to good choices that are appropriate to their reading level, and to get them excited about reading and coming to the library,” she says. To accomplish this, Nelson uses tools like online catalogues and blogs and teaches students and fellow educators how to use the library’s digital resources.

“We have our share of families who never visit the public library, and we need a library to offer those children.”

—Rebecca Bright

Let no hero go unsung!

We want the world to know more about the superhero educators and support professionals in our public schools. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Click here  to register—don’t be shy! Log in and go to My Profile so you can upload photos, tell your backstory, and select the icons that represent your super powers (such as “excellent communication with parents” or “takes action to stop bullying”). Share your superhero profile on Facebook so your entire network can see the pride you take in what you do.
  2. Hit the Nominate button and in mere minutes you can recognize the superheroes in your school community. The teachers and support professionals you nominate will receive an email encouraging them to create their own profiles on the site.
  3. Leave supportive comments for your fellow educators, and encourage others to do the same. Hit the “like” button to showcase your fellow superheroes’ profiles on your Facebook page.
  4. Share the Superheroes video on social media, or embed it in your blog. Remind your network why educators really are the superheroes that walk among us.

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Marla Schreffler

I’m helping put an end to bullying at my school with the Peer Helping Network,  a diverse group of kids who are committed to making their school a better, safer and more accepting place.

Shaun Johnson

I was bullied as a child for choosing figure skating over hockey, and today I realize that sometimes bullying prevention initiates difficult conversations.

Vincent Pompei

I was bullied badly when I was a student, starting all the way back in elementary school.