'Get in the Game!' ESP of the Year Donna Schulze Tells NEA Delegates

Getting politically active at all levels of public discourse “is critical to assuring that parents, school board members, and the general public understand our daily work,” Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year Donna Schulze said Thursday during her speech NEA’s Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly being held in Atlanta this week. “I think much of the public has a distorted picture of teachers, principals and school support staff. They’ve seen too many movies.”

A paraeducator for 23 years, Schulze urged the 9,000-plus delegates gathered in the Georgia World Congress Center to “get in the game” and “be a player” at all levels of government, education, and politics.

2013 NEA ESP of the Year Donna Schulze speaks at the 92nd NEA Representative Assembly on July 4, 2013 in Atlanta (Photo: Scott Iskowitz)

“Politics is a team sport,” said Schulze, a member of the Maryland State Education Association. “We need to make sure we are heard at city hall, the statehouse and the White House. We need to have a presence on local, state and national committees responsible for setting this nation’s education agenda.”

Schulze told teachers, school support staff, and administrators from K-12 to higher education that the general public “is probably not aware of how much work you take home each night. They don’t reflect on how evening and weekend school work can conflict with family time.”

By getting politically active, she said, educators can help to clear up some common misperceptions about the daily workload of educators.

“The public seems to think that you get paid to attend back-to-school nights, weekend dances, and sporting events,” said Schulze, a member of the Howard County Education Association, one of the largest merged teacher-ESP locals in the nation with more than 5,000 members. “They are also under the grand illusion that the school board pays for all of the supplies in our classrooms.”

According to surveys and news reports, teachers and ESPs contribute hundreds of dollars a year in personal funds to schools and students toward the purchase of classroom supplies, clothing, and meal tickets.

“This is why we need to raise our hands and our voices and educate them to the truth,” said Schulze, who works at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia. “And for this to succeed, we need to step up and step out of our comfort zones and get politically active.”

Steering her remarks to ESPs, Schulze said they particularly need to get active in living wage and anti-privatization campaigns.

“To most people outside of school environments, ESPs are invisible, anonymous, disposable,” she said. “Maybe that’s why privateers think they can sweep into a school district and steal our jobs! Well, not without a fight they can’t! And not if we are politically active — they can’t!”

Schulze took school board members and legislators to task for not being as sensitive to the expertise, work ethic, and dedication of ESPs.

“They don’t seem to comprehend that ESP’s have invested their lives in education,” she said. “We have a stake in education and want to be part of the discussion.”

As ESP of the Year, Schulze will promote the values and concerns of NEA’s approximately 500,000 ESP members. In this capacity, she will travel to national, state and regional conferences in an ambassadorial role.

More than four out of 10 public school employees are school support staff, who NEA categorizes into nine K-12 job groups, plus one for higher education. The ESP of the Year award was approved by the NEA Representative Assembly in 1991. The first award was presented in 1992.