When it comes to her devotion to her students, fellow educators, and her profession, it’s a family affair for Education Support Professional of the Year Debra Ward-Mitchell, who addressed delegates of the 2022 NEA Representative Assembly today in her hometown of Chicago.
“I wouldn’t be the educator I am today if it weren’t for my mom, Ella Ward. She was my best friend,” Ward-Mitchell said. “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.”
Ward-Mitchell lost her mom in 2019, and when she was named NEA ESP of the Year last March, she saw the award as a blessing — a sign that her mom was looking over her.
Her mother always rooted for the underdog and went above and beyond to help others in need. Ward-Mitchell takes that approach to her work with students.
Ward-Mitchell is assistant director at the Infant Care Center in District 205, where she provides services for teen parents. Many of the teenagers must fend for themselves; their own parents are 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.”
She told delegates that she comes from a long line of strong and powerful women and that service is in her DNA.
"Together, my mom, aunts, and grandmother taught me to love, respect others, and give 100 percent, or as close to it as I can manage,” she said.
ESPs Give Their All
“As paraeducators, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, and other ESPs, we give our all,” said Ward-Mitchell. “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.”
The first annual ESP earnings report that NEA released this year revealed that ESPs are earning less than they did ten years ago. In every state across the country—except for one—the average salary for ESPs is at least $10,000 below a basic living wage.
Union Power = More Respect
"Despite the challenges all educators face, we can find hope in the power of unions—in collective bargaining, organizing, and advocacy,” Ward-Mitchell said.
The Illinois Education Association launched a Respect Campaign to support fair wages, retention and recruitment, pension, insurance, and professional development for all ESPs. To date, members helped secure a series of important legislative wins for ESPs, including 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.”
Ward-Mitchell and her colleagues share their stories so that everyone knows how critical they are to the education team and to student success. They are making it known that the issues they face are systemic, not just isolated problems within school districts.
She also told the delegates that, as union members and leaders, they have the power to fight for the professional respect that all educators want and deserve.
“Through our union, we can find hope in each other – through love, support, and care,” Ward-Mitchell said. “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.”