Support Professionals: Advancing the Fight for Professional Voice

The winter 2015-2016 edition of the national AFT newsletter for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel marks another milestone in the efforts of AFT support professionals to have the dignity and importance of their work recognized in our education systems. Here’s a sampling from that publication of some of the developing ideas about what it means to recognize the professionalism of all the education employees who are key players alongside teachers on our educational team. (By the way, the new thinking on this topic also was reflected in the recent formal renaming of the Texas AFT Paraprofessional and School-Related Personnel Committee as the Support Professionals Committee.)

The AFT Task Force on Professionalism continues refining what it means to be a professional, identifying our members’ professional needs and considering what we must do to eliminate barriers to being a professional. The task force met in October after a series of listening sessions in which it gathered members’ ideas, all toward the goal of drafting a resolution to put before our union. Activists from every sector of the AFT, including AFT PSRP, are represented on the task force.

During its first meeting earlier this year, custodian Sonia Chavez spoke to the need for a living wage. The second meeting in New Orleans this fall immediately preceded the AFT’s annual Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference, emphasizing how tightly linked our basic rights are to being treated with dignity and respect at work.

As task force chair, AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker welcomed members, who then examined aspects of professionalism such as a commitment to excellence and continuous improvement in knowledge and skills, as well as autonomy, authority and respect.

Ricker summed up the feelings of many school and college support staff this way: “I just want the dignity of my work recognized.”

We need to expose some of the code language used to belittle employees, she added, and “elevate the dignity of our work.”

Susan Snyder, an educational assistant and board member of the Saint Paul (Minn.) Federation of Teachers, said: “People just want to be heard. They want to be heard, and valued by being heard.” Yet, that basic recognition—respectful listening—is often withheld.

“Lately, our district has decided that anyone and everyone can do my job, with a little training,” said Sandra Davis, a special education paraprofessional and PSRP chair of the Baltimore Teachers Union. “We have to be the biggest advocates for our jobs.”

Later in the fall, Davis shared with other PSRP leaders her ideas on how support staff should be treated more professionally:

  • First, stop lumping together all PSRPs, no matter how vastly different their jobs, by giving them the same one-size-fits-all job evaluation, whether they work as food service workers, building engineers, school bus drivers, clerical workers, paraprofessionals or groundskeepers.
  • Second, make sure those evaluations are part of a fair and objective appraisal system.
  • Third, provide coaching throughout the ranks of employees, not just at the top.
  • Fourth, hire qualified, competent and trained managers who will be held accountable.
  • And fifth, set and enforce a mechanism for due process, so that all employees are treated fairly.

It is pretty clear that meeting these goals will require changes in local policies and likely also in state legislation. Texas AFT committees will be exploring the possibilities for such changes here in Texas while the work of the national AFT task force continues to unfold.