Everyone has first day jitters, but for many, jitters can quickly escalate into to first day fright when they start a job with absolutely no training or guidance. That’s been the trend for education support professionals (ESPs), many of whom start their first day of school with only a few introductions and maybe a perfunctory tour, only to be left to figure out the rest on their own.
“Most times ESPs don’t even know where the bathroom is let alone who to go to with problems,” says Judy Near, a retired health technician who was 2012 NEA ESP of the Year and one of three Colorado ESPs who organized the Canon City ESP Association (CCESPA). “They need guidance on all the do’s and don’ts, they need to get a sense of the school’s culture, and they need someone to simply help them get up to speed and relieve their stress.”
She partnered with the school district’s Human Resources director to create an 8-hour orientation for all new school employees, whether they were NEA members or not. Next they created a mentoring program so new ESPs could be matched with a mentor to guide them through their first year.
A Stronger Voice
The result: well prepared staff who felt welcomed and valued, and a stronger voice for all ESPs.
“Any time you give people the opportunity to learn it gives them voice,” says Near. “But when you give ESPs a voice and an opportunity to help other support staff know their value, then mentoring becomes invaluable.”
A stronger voice for ESPs leads to greater job satisfaction and lower turnover, which is the chief reason mentoring is critical for anyone working with students.
“We all know that kids get attached to the adults they see at school, they develop a comfort level with them and feel secure with consistency and familiarity,” says Near. “That’s the biggest win from training and mentorship – it allows our ESPs to feel welcomed and valued which leads to longevity so our kids don’t see someone new every day or every year.”
Another outcome of ESP mentoring programs is increased professionalism and growth, according to Kathy Ellis, president of the Red Clay Paraprofessionals Association in Delaware, the first ESP mentoring program to be launched in the state.
“The mentoring and trainings we offer are designed by us, for us; they’re tailored to our careers, with topics like understanding your role as a one-on-one paraeducator or a classroom paraeducator, understanding the IEP, and staying in compliance,” she says. “The paras provide the training and orientation, so we are demonstrating the professionalism that all ESPs strive for and we are guiding our colleagues along their educational journey so that nobody becomes stagnant.”
Mentoring program participants receive an orientation and then are assigned a mentor who works with them throughout the year, meeting them at their school and staying in touch at least twice a month in person, by phone or by email. They continue their relationships at luncheons and other events, and most stay friends beyond the official mentorship term.
“It’s about making connections and building a relationship,” says Ellis.
More Value, More Respect
Another key element in the mentoring program is building self-confidence and self-respect, says Quanyet Gibbs, vice president RCPA. Too often she hears members say “I’m just a para” or “I’m just an ESP,” but that line of thinking undermines the vital contributions they make to student lives.
“Sometimes we’re shortchanged by the word ‘para’ or ‘teacher’s aide’,” she says. “There’s a stigma that must be overcome. We have bachelors and master’s degrees, and we are every bit as important as other educators. Mentoring reinforces that fact.”
Mentees are asked to create and then reach personal and professional goals and are held accountable to them along the way. Mentors also demonstrate how ESPs can be active leaders, which in turn encourages mentees to become more active and to recognize and prepare for their own leadership opportunities.
“When you know better, you do better — with yourself, your colleagues, and your students,” says Gibbs. “We have to know to grow.”
Recognize Personal Strengths
Olive Giles, a school secretary and vice president of the Princeton Regional Educational Support Staff Association (PRESSA) agrees that mentoring allows support staff to grow in unique ways. Sometimes it allows them to learn about their own skill sets they didn’t know they possessed. For example, somebody who likes to talk a lot might not know about their persuasive skills that could be useful in organizing or negotiating. Or someone who has knowledge about the best materials for the gymnasium floor, the safest cleaning products, or the most environmentally friendly food practices in the cafeteria could be useful on the school’s sustainability committee.
But Giles says that perhaps the most important element of mentoring is knowing that you’re not alone.
“Starting a new job in a new school is never easy, but it’s so helpful to know that there’s somebody to guide you, who knows what you’ll be going through in the weeks, days, hours and minutes of your day-to-day routines,” she says.
Just as RCPA launched the first ESP mentoring program in Delaware, PRESSA is the first ESP program in New Jersey and they are looking at replicating the program throughout the state.
For other locals trying to launch their own ESP mentoring program, Giles offers this advice: Look for the outspoken, the curious and those not afraid to take initiative and try new things. Recognize that it takes time, baby steps, tweaks and evolution. And in the words of a pin she proudly wears as a front office ESP, “If at first you don’t succeed, try doing what your secretary told you to do the first time.”
The National Education Association believes that mentoring programs are a means of enhancing the professional expertise of employees and retaining quality educators. Since December 2018, NEA has trained and supported 53 local associations from 25 state affiliates in building high-quality ESP peer mentoring programs. If you would like to learn more about how to establish an ESP mentoring program, contact us at ESPMentoring@nea.org or visit nea.org/espmentoring.