The backbone of a school has always been the work of Education Support Professionals but during the pandemic, they proved to be even more essential to school operations. As we honor their work during American Education Week, we asked ESPs what they want most this ESP Day and every day of the year.
Better Pay, Benefits to End Shortages
Teacher shortages have grabbed headlines but the shortages have also hit ESPs with blows across job categories. Bus driver shortages have been so severe the National Guard was called in to drive students in Massachusetts. Cafeterias, short on food because of supply chain problems, are also short on staff and everyone is rolling up their sleeves to wash pots, prepare dishes, serve students and pitch in wherever they can to make sure kids are fed the nutritious meals that help them learn.
“Our bus drivers are struggling to start with,” says Henry Sanchez, a bus driver from Michigan. “The pay isn’t good enough to keep people or hire new drivers. If you have a job that keeps you in poverty, it’s not a good job.”
Margaret Powell, a data manager in Wake County, North Carolina, agrees that ESPs deserve better pay and benefits.
Her 17-year-old son makes $17 an hour at McDonald’s after four months on the job, which is significantly more than many ESPs who have been on the job for years. They don't make enough to support their families and are forced to take on more.
“Many ESPs have to work more than one job, and you can’t be tired working with students,” she says.
Many school districts ignored chronic problems in ESP staffing for years before COVID, and ESPs have historically been under paid, had limited access to benefits, and been denied appropriate professional development. Service systems, such as education support, that are already weakened by neglect have a greater chance of collapse in a crisis like COVID.
There are many obstacles to overcome to ease shortages, but better pay and benefits is the biggest, Powell says.
Help ease shortages by advocating that American Rescue Plan funds be used for education staffing and by filling the educator pipeline with the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better framework to increase funding for human infrastructure.
Mental Health Support
ESPs work in schools because they have chosen a career that help students. The well-being of the students they serve and care deeply about is always at the forefront of everything they do. That can take a toll on their own well-being when they see students suffer or when circumstances prevent them from providing the care they know students need and deserve. As educators all work together to find solutions, it’s important that ESPs take time to care for themselves so that they can be in a position to care for others.
Chris Cipriano, Assistant Professor and Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, hosted a webinar for ESPs during the beginning of the pandemic to learn strategies for harnessing emotions to cope in healthy and productive ways.
“The compounding traumas of this crisis call for schools to rethink what it means to educate the whole child and invest deeply in the whole school community,” Cipriano said.
School Building Infrastructure
Mold creeping across classroom walls, leaky ceilings, inoperable toilets and sinks, closed off and crumbling stair wells – the state of far too many school buildings is dangerous and unacceptable for a learning and working environment. We must show our school children and their educators that they deserve a clean, healthy and safe learning space.
Too many ESPs spend their days shoring up crumbling facilities, and the ongoing structural conditions siphon funding from other education needs. Take action for direct funding to address and finally fix crumbling school facilities: Support the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act
Privatization and Job Security
Some policy makers believe outsourcing jobs saves money while preserving quality, but the opposite is true.
Privatizing ESP positions leads to contracts that consistently underestimate the work ESPs do for our students. Schools with private custodial companies aren’t as clean, buses aren’t as safe, food isn’t as tasty or nutritious, but most of all, contracted workers usually don’t live and work in the community for as long as school employees. They don’t get to know and care about the students or become another trusted adult that students can count on each day.
Find out what you can do to support ESP career and job security.
Respect and Inclusion
ESPs want to be seen as professionals who are essential members of the education team.
“ESP have continued to show up and stand up for their students and the great public schools in which we work in. We continue to be on the frontlines and encourage our students in their learning endeavors by ensuring that they have the tools they need to be successful daily,” says NEA ESP of the Year Kimberly Scott-Hayden. “We, the ESPs across this great nation, want to be respected as the educators that we are; to be recognized as the Essential School Professionals who play a significant role in educating the whole child, no matter what career family we belong to.”