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Press Release

Illinois' Debra Ward-Mitchell recognized as 2022 NEA ESP of the Year

NEA President Becky Pringle: Debra Ward-Mitchell is a tireless advocate for her students, educators, and communities  
Published: 03/28/2022

WASHINGTON – NEA has named Illinois paraeducator and assistant director at an infant care center Debra Ward-Mitchell the 2022 NEA Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year.

On March 26th, at the 2022 NEA ESP National Conference in New Orleans, NEA awarded Ward-Mitchell with its highest honor for education support professionals: the NEA ESP of the Year Award. In this capacity, she will serve as an ambassador for ESPs across the country, promoting the value of ESP members at local, state, and national events. 

ESPs are the bus drivers who get our students to school safely. They are the custodians who keep our school buildings and grounds clean, the cafeteria workers who ensure our school communities are fed, the paraeducators who meet the needs of our most vulnerable students, and so much more. Every year, NEA honors an ESP member who demonstrates outstanding accomplishments and whose achievements reflect the vital role ESPs play in public education. 

"NEA honors Debra and her commitment to helping our most vulnerable students succeed in the classroom and their community,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “She is a tireless advocate for her students, educators, and communities. She thinks in terms of solutions rather than problems and possibilities rather than impossibilities.”  

“We are absolutely thrilled Debra has been chosen for this outstanding honor,” said Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin. “Debra is one of those people who makes you feel better just by being around her. She is truly exceptional. Debra’s actions show just how much she values and loves the students she works with. Many of them are young parents who lean on her to listen and to guide and encourage them so they can reach their true potential. Her actions show what a tireless advocate she is for her students and fellow educators. It’s part of who she is. We are excited to join the NEA in celebrating her.”  

For the first 20 years of her career in Thornton Township High School District 205, a consolidated high school district based in Harvey, Illinois, Ward-Mitchell worked with students with behavior disorders as a paraeducator. It was their last stop before alternative school or expulsion, and Mitchell was determined to help them succeed.  

“These students were not in the habit of giving their trust away to anyone. But in time, with patience and much love, they did,” she said. “I was like their mom away from home, making sure they had whatever support they needed. I listened to them without judgement, and they learned that their decisions could affect the rest of their lives.”  

Some of those students who Ward-Mitchell mentored went on to become educators.  

Ward-Mitchell is now the assistant director at the Infant Care Center in District 205, where she provides services for teen parents. Many teenagers are on their own, having their own parents unable or unwilling to help. As a single mother to two boys, Mitchell knows how hard raising children can be, but realizes the challenges are far greater for teenagers trying to do it on their own.  

“I often say that we don’t know what it takes for our students to walk through the doors of our classrooms. It's up to us to provide comfort, safety, and honesty when they cross that threshold. That is how we save them, teach them, and keep them safe.” 

To learn more about Debra Ward-Mitchell visit

For more information on the NEA ESP of the Year Award program, including a complete list of the 2022 NEA ESP of the Year nominees, visit  

Follow us @NEAMedia and @NEArESPect 

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The National Education Association is the nation's largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators, students preparing to become teachers, healthcare workers, and public employees. Learn more at 

ESPs are categorized into nine career families: paraeducators; clerical services; custodial services; skilled trades; technical services; security services; transportation services; food services; and health and student services. Learn more at 

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National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.