Good afternoon, President Pringle, NEA officers, my fellow delegates, and esteemed guests. My name is Debra Ward-Mitchell. I’m a proud paraeducator from the great state of Illinois. I’m so honored to be here in Chicago—my hometown—to represent education support professionalsas NEA’s 2022 ESP of the Year.
For the first twenty years of my career, I worked with students who had behavior disorders—some of the most at-risk students in my community. Currently, I work at our district’s infant care center, where my mission is to keep young parents in school and provide them with the support they need to be successful.
Like most ESPs, my role extends beyond the classroom and the walls of the school building. In everything I do, I work to make sure students are cared for, and that we, as ESPs, are seen and valued as the professionals we are.
I wouldn’t be the educator I am today if it weren’t for my mom, Ella Ward. She was my best friend. Today is a special day for many reasons. Not only do I have the opportunity to speak to all of you, but today is also my mom’s birthday.
In July 2019, I lost my mom. This past March, when I was named NEA ESP of the Year, I saw the award as a blessing—sort of like a sign that she was looking over me.
I come from a long line of strong and powerful women who love and care for others. My mom, who always rooted for the underdog, went above and beyond to help those in need. Like her, I go above and beyond to help and support my students and colleagues, and I also look for the good in everything and everyone. My Mom was kind and giving, just like her mom—Odessa Thomas—my grandmother, who was the matriarch of our family.
So, service is in my DNA. Together, my mom, aunts and grandmother taught me to love, respect others, and give my 100%...or as close to it I can manage.
As paraeducators, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, and other ESPs, we give our all. We give our all in service to our fellow educators, students, and our communities. And as we do that, we face many challenges, including a rise in staffing shortages driven by workload issues, exhaustion, and an overall lack of respect.
This year, for the first time ever, NEA released an ESP earnings report which revealed that ESPs are earning less than they did ten years ago. In every state across our country—except for one —the average salary for ESPs is at least 10,000 dollars below a basic living wage.
In my local, the Union of Support Staff, most ESPs work 2-3 jobs to support their families and make ends meet. This is something I’m all too familiar with. My youngest son is on the Autism spectrum, and when he was in 6th grade, I realized that I had to be home to support him. So, I had to quit my other jobs. But without a living wage, it’s difficult for caring adults to make that decision, and be available for the children who need them most.
But despite the challenges all educators face, we can find hope in the power of unions—in collective bargaining, organizing, and advocacy.
Here in Illinois, we’ve launched a Respect Campaign to support fair wages, retention and recruitment, pension, insurance and professional development for all ESPs. To date, our members helped secure a series of important legislative wins for ESPs. This includes sick leave and paycheck protection should anyone get COVID, and the option to use sick leave for mental health needs.
We’re asking all stakeholders, from state legislators to community members, to be part of the campaign as we fight for the professional respect of all ESPs.
We’re telling our stories so that everyone knows how critical we are to the education team and to student success. We’re making it known that the issues we face are systemic issues, not just isolated problems within school districts.
Through our union, we can find hope in each other – through love, support, and care.
ESPs, teachers, higher-ed faculty, specialized instructional support personnel, and other educators: We must lean on each other. We’re all part of the same education family.
My grandmother always said, “Treat people like you want to be treated.” I take these words with me when I care for my two sons, when I care for my students, when I care for their young parents, and when I care for my colleagues.
As educators, we have the power to change the lives of our students. And as union members and leaders, we have the power to fight for the professional respect that all educators—all of us in this room—want and deserve.
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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 www.nea.org.
- Celeste Busser
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