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NEA News

I Didn’t Know My Union Did This!

NEA brings support staff together for professional development.
Hillsborough ESPs
Hillsborough education support professionals celebrate “Upload Day” after submitting their micro-credential.
Published: March 8, 2024

Key Takeaways

  1. NEA affiliates launch Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to complete micro-credentials.
  2. Too often, support staff haven’t had access to professional development. NEA is working to change that.
  3. ESPs grow as professionals, make connections with colleagues, and see how union membership helps them at work.

During most of her 20 years as an instructional assistant in Oregon, Stacey Zoon received very little professional development. 

“We get basic trainings at school three or four times a year, like a video on mandatory reporting or a session about dealing with behavior, and that’s it,” she says. 

But then she was introduced to NEA’s micro-credentials for education support professionals (ESPs). 

“NEA micro credentials are so much more in depth and cover things you’re actually going to use as an educator,” Zoon, who now works as a library media assistant, says.  

An NEA micro-credential is a competency-based recognition from the National Education Association that allows an educator to demonstrate mastery in a particular area of inquiry. It requires learning, study, and submission of evidence to demonstrate their learning. It is then reviewed by a team of educators and awarded if competency is achieved. 

NEA offers 175 micro-credentials, with 23 designed for ESPs. 

Micro-credentials Offer New Information to ESPs 

“We’ve covered topics that are usually never talked about with us as ESPs,” Zoon says. “For example, “Introduction to Netiquette” (online etiquette) shows participants how to write and communicate professionally online, which many ESPs hadn’t been shown and may not have been aware of, like how using all caps can be alarming.” 

For Zoon, who completed NEA micro credentials in a Professional Learning Community (PLC) sponsored by her local NEA affiliate, the Lebanon Education Association in northwest Oregon, the communication micro-credential was a launching pad to more far-reaching learning experiences. 

For example, she and her colleagues completed micro-credentials on Restorative Practices, where they learned to build community, relationships, and a positive, supportive school climate. 

stacey zoon
Stacey Zoon

“I didn’t know anything about restorative justice before learning about it in our PLC work on the micro-credentials,” Zoon says. 

Then she was off and running, earning more than 10 micro-credentials in everything from Elevating the Profession Through Educator Ethics to Creating a Healing-Centered Learning Environment, a micro-credential in which educators identify key elements of trauma-informed pedagogy and design their own healing-centered learning environment. 

“I was sensitive to kids with trauma before, but as I took the course and learned to dig a little deeper, I saw how it really, deeply affects them, and how we need to try different things for different students to help them get back to learning,” Zoon says. “Sometimes as ESPs we aren’t present at all of the meetings and aren’t aware that a child is in foster care or has been abused. We learned to look at behavior, stop and think a bit more, and try new approaches.” 

Zoon has also led a PLC for micro-credentials in self-care and cultural competence. 

“Cultural competence was new to many of the ESPs, and they were kind of nervous and overwhelmed at first,” Zoon says. “I was able to help them get comfortable with the concepts, learn different viewpoints, and also recognize the vocabulary that many teachers know when it comes to this work but hadn’t been explained or defined for them.” 

With breakout rooms and other ways to connect more deeply, the PLC created a space for ESP collaboration and a way to form new relationships, all while participating in professional learning. 

But that’s not all. After completing one micro-credential, ESPs like Zoon earn $225.00, a stipend bargained for by the Lebanon Education Support Professionals Association with the school district. 

“You can get about $900 a year by earning micro-credentials, which is really cool, but the best part is how informative and helpful they are,” Zoon says. 

ESPs Join Together to Learn and Grow in Florida 

Sabrina Gates, a former history teacher and longtime union member, is the executive director of the Hillsborough Center for Technology and Education (CTEchEd) in Tampa, Florida, a nonprofit that provides opportunities for professional development for educators.  

CTechEd began in 1997 and is a partnership of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association (HCTA), a local affiliate of the Florida Education Association; the National Education Association; and the American Federation of Teachers. It was created to improve professional development through technology and promote leadership development for teachers in the classroom, but has evolved to elevate and inspire all educators through learning opportunities. 

“ESPs have been shortchanged as professionals without sufficient access to professional development opportunities that lifts them up,” Gates says. 

That’s why, with an NEA Professional Excellence grant, CTechEd created Project LEAP (Lifting ESPs, Amplifying Professionalism),, a program that provides opportunities for ESPs to earn the NEA micro-credentials, gain knowledge, sharpen skills, and collaborate with other ESPs in a learning community.  

ESPs who are represented by the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association (HCTA) and register with Project LEAP will work on the Communication micro-credential.  

They meet as a PLC in person and online twice a month. It offers them an opportunity to talk about their professional practice while growing in their confidence and connecting with other ESPs they likely wouldn’t have otherwise met. 

Invested in Growing Their Own Skills

“We have groups of ESPs who are active in the union, but many who are not,” Gates says. “They’ll say they never knew their union cared about who they were in their job and cared about how they could grow professionally. They thought the union was all about politics! Their vision has changed because of this opportunity.”  

ESPs can complete one of the Communication Micro-Credentials working with other members of the ESP PLC. Additionally, ESPs can belong to the PLL (Professional Leanring Leader) PLC where they are learning to lead other PLCs. 

“It’s an important distinction,” Gates says. “PLL represents the leadership you are trying to grow in someone to use their voice professionally at their work site and as union members beyond the workplace.” 

The PLL group members participate in the Communications Micro-Credential as both learners and as co-facilitators and will attend the ESP Professional Learning Leader Academy. 

Participating either as learners or as learner-leaders requires dedication and time. 

“These ESPs are invested in growing their skills, in making connections to their work, their union, and one another,” Gates says. “I always sing their praises and shout their courage.” 

The entire process takes about five months (six hours each month), and culminates in “writing camps” where they work on the evidence they must submit to support what they’ve learned. Then it’s “Upload Day.”  

After a PLC or PLL completes the micro-credential, CTechEd holds an “Upload Day” event where they each submit their final work to the micro-credential review committee. 

Everyone earns a CTechEd certificate, they are all celebrated in the HCTA newsletter, and their names and achievement are shared with the district superintendent to show how hard district support staff work and how they are invested in their careers. 

Building Respect for ESPs 

“There isn’t enough respect for every person’s role in a child’s education, and we are trying to change that,” Gates says.  

The first, most important, step is building ESP respect for themselves and each other. 

“As ESPs we are outnumbered by teachers and our jobs can often feel secondary,” says paraeducator Denise Verill. “But we are essential, and the PLC and PLL I have enrolled in have allowed me to develop skills and certainly confidence that I might not otherwise develop.” 

Verill will be traveling to the NEA National ESP Conference in Las Vegas in late March, where she will share more about her involvement with Project LEAP. 

“I have a deeper understanding of the whole child model and how to work together to bring about change and make a difference in education no matter what the position,” she says. I believe this type of enrichment can elevate and invigorate others as it has myself.” 

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National Education Association

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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.