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NEA News

Illinois Educator Named 2022 NEA Education Support Professional of the Year

Paraeducator Debra Ward-Mitchell received the honor at the 2022 NEA National ESP Conference in New Orleans March 26.
Debra Ward-Mitchell Kathy Anderson Photography
Illinois paraeducator Debra Ward-Mitchell receives 2022 ESP of the Year Award at NEA's ESP Conference in New Orleans.
Published: March 27, 2022 Last Updated: March 27, 2022

Key Takeaways

  1. As a high school paraeducator, Ward-Mitchell worked tirelessly to keep vulnerable students on track to graduation.
  2. As a strong advocate for ESPs, she ensures that they know their value and worth and that the rest of the school community recognizes their contributions.
  3. Ward-Mitchell is a community leader whose work lifts up and empowers young people, especially young women.

As a paraeducator for some of the most at-risk adolescents in the Illinois public school system, Debra Ward-Mitchell threw her arms open and casted a wide safety net to catch students before they fell through the cracks.    

Her concern for students, colleagues and community is why Ward-Mitchell was named the 2022 NEA Education Support Professional of the Year.   

For the first 20 years of her career in Thornton Township High School District 205, a consolidated high school district based in Harvey, Illinois, in Cook County, she worked as a paraeducator with students with behavior disorders. It was their last stop before alternative school or expulsion, and Ward-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 so,” she says. “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 Mitchell mentored went on to become educators.  

Mitchell is now assistant director at the Infant Care Center in District 205, where she provides services for teen parents. Many of the teenagers are on their own, having their own parents unable or unwilling to help.   

“These new moms and dads are scared, unsure and overwhelmed,” Ward-Mitchell says. “I love them as if they were my own children.”   

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.” 

On March 26th at the 2022 NEA ESP National Conference in New Orleans NEA and NEA Member Benefits 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. 

“NEA applauds Debra and her commitment to helping even our most vulnerable students succeed in the classroom, in school and the community,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “She is a tireless advocate for her students, members and the profession, and thinks in terms of solutions rather than problems, possibilities rather than impossibilities.” 

Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin is thrilled that Ward-Mitchell was chosen for the honor.  

“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.”

“Debra is one of those people who makes you feel better just by being around her. She is truly exceptional,” Griffin said. “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, guide and encourage them to 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 and we are excited to join the NEA in celebrating her.”    

To get to know Debra –Ward-Mitchell and her impact on students and colleagues, NEA asked her to share more about her career in public education.  

What are some of your biggest accomplishments?  

One is my work as a program manager for the City of Markham. Throughout my 18-year tenure, I helped several students (some of them teen parents) participate in the Summer Youth Program that connected them to worksites throughout the community. The students cleaned vacant lots, did landscaping for senior citizens and helped plan the annual community weekend festival. One teen mom was hired to work in the City Clerk’s office. She continued that job for six years. In 2018, she graduated from college with a degree in nursing. 

I also co-founded Stepping Into Womanhood with Purpose, Power, and Vision (SIW). The mission is to motivate young women to elevate their personal aspirations, guide them to make positive decisions, and empower them to define and design their destinies. During an eight-week interactive curriculum I helped design, they participated in discussions, journaling, and self-reflective activities. Each week we created a safe space to build community among young women; where they could challenge prevalent media images, reject common societal norms, and begin to redefine their self-worth. Each year a new group was handpicked with a vision to motivate young ladies to dream bigger; to empower them to take responsibility for the time and space they occupy; and to ignite the power that lies within them to define and design their own destiny.   

How do you support fellow ESPs? 

My responsibility to advocate for members began long before I became president of the local 205 Union of Support Staff in Region 27. I began advocating when I filed a grievance to obtain sick leave when I was put on bed rest but was denied. That grievance changed my life, changed my perspective of the union and all the work associated with it. As local president, I feel I have a responsibility to each and every one of my local members. The responsibility to ensure that they feel safe and comfortable at their worksite; that their contract is not violated; that they have opportunity for growth and leadership; and that their well-being is not compromised. 

 It’s very important that all ESPs in my local know their worth and value. When inviting the members to conferences and meetings, I send personal invites, not group emails.  I engage in one-on-one conversations with members. I ask about their families and activities they enjoy outside of work. I support them if they coach or sponsor activities. 

I’ve learned that it doesn’t take much to make someone’s day.  

 During the pandemic, our buildings and grounds men were deemed essential workers. They worked on site every day and couldn’t take days off. They were exhausted. I bought lunch bags and filled them with goodies and a gas gift card. They needed to know that while everyone else was working from home, our thoughts and prayers were with them in the trenches. I wanted them to know that their work mattered and we supported them. I went to each worksite to hand deliver the bags. 

On the state level, it was my suggestion that ESPs that do not sit on the Council be allowed to serve on ESP Council subcommittees. This will ensure their involvement and an opportunity for more ESPs to be involved on the state level.  

What are your goals as a union member and public school educator? 

Despite the losses I faced during the pandemic, including more than 50 family members and friends, I am still pursuing my goals. One is to re-enter college this year. I am very close to finishing a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education. I would like to continue to earn a Master’s in Counseling. 

 As a union leader, I want to eradicate the negative perception of ESPs. I’m on a mission to ensure that all ESPs share the feeling of pride and purpose. It is not ‘just a’ job, it is an admirable career. A career that provides support, love and respect to every child that crosses our path. 

 I love what I do. It is a career that I chose. It’s a career that is honorable and respectful. I intend to show everyone our value, our worth as education support professionals. I work hard to ensure members know they are cared for and cared about and I am proud to say that my local has 100 percent membership.  

What is your advice to other ESPs? 

The advice I would give a colleague entering the profession would be to not get stuck. Keep learning and keep achieving. Every lesson learned is a lesson taught to your students and shows them that it can be done and will inspire them. In my school district, there are many opportunities for growth. To date, more than 15 members have gone on to get their teaching license under my leadership. Not only did they grow educationally, they remained union members living up to the motto ‘Union Strong.’ 

I encourage all educators to be involved with the union, not just as a dues-paying member, but to get actively involved: hold a position, go to a rally, challenge yourself to effect change on your job and in your classroom.  

Finally, be a public school advocate. Continue to learn new skills to advocate for yourself, your students, your association and your community. 

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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.