Matthew Powell, the 2019 Education Support Professional of the Year, took the stage at the NEA Representative Assembly on Saturday. Introducing him to the almost 7,000 delegates gathered in the George E. Brown Convention Center in Houston, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García commended Powell for his "commitment to public education and our students."
"Technically, he has the title of custodial supervisor," Eskelsen García added. "But that is just one of the many hats this talented man wears."
In addition to his work as a custodial supervisor, Powell is also the night watchman and fills in as a bus driver when the district needs substitute drivers. He works at Graves County Central Elementary School in Mayfield, Kentucky.
Powell, who was named ESP of the Year at the annual NEA ESP national conference in March, is a passionate advocate for teaching the whole child—and for the critical role ESPs play in that effort. In his speech to the RA, Powell highlighted the lasting impact every school staff member has on students and their community.
"My 'class' includes all 538 of the students in my school," Powell told the delegates. "My classroom is on the bus, in the cafeteria, on the playground, in the halls, at the outside koi fish pond, and many other places around the school."
Powell took time in his speech to salute four educators—a teacher, a bus driver, a "lunch lady," and a school custodian—who affected him growing up and helped him become the educator he is today.
"What these educators really did was create an atmosphere where I felt supported, fed, and safe. They created an environment for me to enjoy and thrive in school. They had different roles, but they seized their unique opportunity to make a positive difference in my life," Powell said.
Powell recounted how in May 2016 a tornado swept across western Kentucky, leveling large swaths of Graves County, where he teaches. While his school was spared, Powell and his colleagues sprang into action to help the community recover, assisting in the delivery of supplies to students and their families.
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Sharing this story with delegates was not intended as a "trip down memory lane," Powell said.
"I want to remind all of us of the influence and power we have in the lives of our students, in our schools, and our communities. That power is available to each and every one of us, every day, in big ways and in seemingly small ways," he said, to applause from delegates.
Powell, a dedicated political activist for public schools in Kentucky, pointed to the powerful alliance between teachers and ESPs in igniting the #RedFor Ed movement across the country.
"ESPs have valuable experience and expertise that should inform our schools about decisions made inside our schools," Powell said. "We know our students well and many of us live in the community where we work...We deserve a seat at every table where policies and decisions are made that impact our work,our students and our communities that we serve."
Powell was a vocal advocate for the Recognizing Achievement in Classified School Employees (RISE) Act, which acknowledges the outstanding contributions of ESPs and classified school employees in the nation's schools.
"It established the first-ever federal recognition of ESPs," Powell told delegates. "It was a victory that would not have been possible without the educators who reached out to members of Congress and shared their voice. It was an amazing achievement, but one that was long overdue."
Quoting Helen Keller, Powell urged delegates to remember that "alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
"We must keep using our collective voice and telling our stories to elevate our profession and demand what we need for our students," Powell said, in closing. "Never forget, we are the experts when it comes to public education."