By John Rosales
March 11, 2010 — Networking. Making new contacts. Connecting with peers. Fattening your Rolodex.
Whatever you call it, it’s one of the benefits of attending the 2010 NEA Education Support Professionals (ESP) Conference, taking place this week at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.
When paraprofessional Monica Mixon hits town, she’ll have six other ESPs anxiously waiting to greet her. They are networking pals whom Mixon has been e-mailing over the last year, though has not met in person. Nor have they met each other.
“It started when they e-mailed me at different times about the same education issue, and I contacted them and now we are all going to meet at the conference,” says Mixon, from Ardmore, Pennsylvania. “They heard about me from someone I met at last year’s conference.”
More than 1,000 conferees in Vegas will have the same opportunity as Mixon and friends to glad-hand and back-slap at conference receptions and dinners, and during workshops on how to stage living wage campaigns, recruit members, and bargain contracts. Networking and training are not usually a priority when doing business along Las Vegas Boulevard.
“People think we’re going to gamble,” Mixon jokes. “But there won’t be time. We’ll be meeting ESPs from all over, going to workshops, discussing issues from back home.”
At the conference, networking with conferees can include exchanging war stories and local information with peers as well as workshop presenters, state Association and NEA staff.
“This conference is small enough so you can walk up to Dennis (Van Roekel, NEA president) or Lily (Eskelsen, vice president) and have a conversation,” says Mixon, a member of the Lower Merion Education Association. “It’s not like the RA (Representative Assembly), which can be overwhelming at times. Miss Becky (Pringle, secretary-treasurer) is from my home state. I’ll sure talk with her at the conference.”
About 507,000 school support staff are NEA members out of approximately 2.8 million such workers in the U.S. And the number is growing rapidly. In recent years, Mixon says networking between ESPs has exploded with blogging, texting, and tweeting.
“People are keeping in touch through e-mail, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter — you name it,” she says. “We get on the phone too.”
Members also use NEA’s ESP email listserv to discuss everything from the Association’s Priority Schools Campaign and organizing, to annual leave days, retirement benefits, and contract language.
“You put a question about contract language on the listserv and you’ll get 25 responses,” Mixon says.
While making contacts is part of the game plan in Vegas, the ESP conference is designed to provide professional development opportunities for participants. Primarily, the workshops aim to help attendees gain skills needed to build strong locals, organize and recruit members, enhance school and community relationships, and to encourage ESPs to help students succeed. At the conference, the ESP of the Year and C.L.E.A.N. Award winners will be named.
Pre-conference workshops began yesterday, including sessions for emerging leaders, presidents and experienced leaders, and for those involved in family, school and community activities.
The National Council for ESPs (NCESP) meeting is set for tomorrow. The group works within NEA governance to represent the specific interests of ESPs categorized in nine job groups, plus those in higher education.
Saturday’s agenda includes legislative and budget hearings. The conference will close on Sunday with half-day seminars, a resolution hearing, and brunch.
“After my first conference in 2007, I knew I had to go back home and do something meaningful for my school, for my Association,” Mixon says. “It blew my mind. I met so many people. They inspired me to look at issues from outside my local.”
Before that first conference, Mixon held one leadership position: minority representative for her local. That same year, Mixon attended a leadership conference in Gettysburg sponsored by the Pennsylvania State Education Association. She then decided to get active in the union and was eventually appointed or elected to a half dozen local and state Association committees.
“Those conferences changed my life,” says Mixon, a delegate to the state and national annual conferences.
It was at that 2007 ESP conference where Mixon first heard about the prestigious NEA Leaders for Tomorrow program, which involves three training sessions in three cities over eight months. The final session is held at the ESP conference, where the group then graduates. Mixon walked the stage at last year’s conference and is looking forward to seeing some of her fellow alums.
“A lot of them are trainers,” she says with pride. “I’m going to their workshops to show support and learn something. They’re an amazing resource.”