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Educators Come in Different Shapes, Forms and Job Titles

By Dave Arnold

After World War I (1914-1918), the American public learned that 25 percent of draftees were illiterate and 9 percent were physically unfit. This got the attention of the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Legion. The two organizations met soon thereafter in 1919 to seek ways to generate public support for education. Consequently, they adopted resolutions to designate one week of the year to promote public education. In 1921, that became America Education Week (AEW).

This year, American Education Week will be celebrated November 18-22, with Education Support Professionals Day occurring on the 20th. More than 2.9 million school support professionals work in our nation’s public schools, with more than 75 percent at the K-12 level. Of those, almost 500,000 are NEA members and referred to as “education support professionals” or ESPs.

It is this time of the year that we acknowledge the importance of educators in our lives. When we say “educator,” it is usually a teacher who comes to mind. But they aren’t the only educators in the lives’ of students.

A child’s education begins at home with their parents. Psychologists tell us that 90 percent of what we learn in our lives occurs in the first three years. Since the majority of that education comes from our parents or guardians, they are our first educators.

We often overlook another set of educators in our lives: school support staff. Their dedication, expertise, and loyalty to students takes many forms. It can be the custodian who volunteers to mentor science students learning about solvents and other chemicals, the office worker who volunteers to coach the girl’s softball team, the bus driver who conducts spelling bees before hitting the road, the paraeducator who spends valuable one-on-one time teaching vocabulary to English-language learners, the food service worker sharing recipes and cooking techniques with budding chefs.

Regardless of their job title, ESPs inside and outside of the classroom are valued educators in the life of students. On the Wednesday of AEW, they will be honored for their contributions to student safety, health, and academic achievement. As a custodian at the Brownstown Elementary School in Illinois, I am proud to be a member of this group.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts as educators, I believe that Americans need to take education more serious. A 2010 study by the Alliance for Excellent Education shows that about 70,000 students drop out of school every day. That’s 1.3 million a year. It’s an epidemic that cannot be ignored!

The study also shows that over the course of their lifetime, the average dropout will earn about $260,000 less than the average high school graduate. Even worse, 80 percent of prison inmates in Illinois are dropouts, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Stand for Children conducted a study in Texas and found it costs less than $10,000 per year to educate a child in that state.  But it costs $44,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate.

It isn’t hard to figure out that if we would spend a little more money and a lot more effort on keeping students in school we could save billions keeping people out of prison.

My point during AEW is this: No one can take on the tremendous challenge of educating students alone. It takes a village, as they say. A village of educators, parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbors, community leaders and ESPs. One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from a former student who said, “I would have quit if it hadn’t been for you.”

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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 darnoldjanitor@yahoo.com.)

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


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