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Having ESP: Why I am Red for Techs

Amethyst Hinton Sainz Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Love, Uncategorized

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When we were kids we used to joke about having ESP, extra-sensory perception. We thought it would be a blast to be psychic, read people’s minds and look into the future. Now, as a junior high teacher, I am often thankful that I can’t see what my students are thinking, and ESP has taken on a whole new meaning and significance in my day.

In education, an ESP is an education support professional. ESPs do work such as being a special education aide, a health office assistant, a food service worker, an administrative assistant or a bus driver. Whereas teachers are responsible for student learning, ESPs are responsible for keeping the school humming, keeping students safe, fed, and supported, and keeping us all within legal compliance.

Despite being so necessary, however, we do not have nearly enough ESPs in schools, and the ones we have should make more money. Arizona Educators United and Arizona Education Association have recognized the importance of these people in our schools by demanding that they be paid a competitive wage as one of the Red for Ed demands. I support this demand based on my experiences over the past three years.

As an English Language Development teacher, I am lucky to have an ESP position connected to my department housed within our school. This means that we have an “SEI Technician,” someone who supports students in the classroom and deals with most of the compliance paperwork that shows the state we are providing students with the legally required language acquisition services.

I learned the value of an ESP my first year in the job. We were being audited by the state, which meant that not only would my planning and teaching be evaluated, but our master schedule AND all the records in the cumulative files of the English language learners, which I had never touched, because the tech did that job.  And the tech spoke fluent Spanish (while I sound like a toddler with good thesaurus skills). The tech had access to state and district reports that I did not, to help us cross-check that we were serving all students. She worked alongside me when she could, and formed relationships with students that helped support their complex needs as EL’s; she gained their trust and affection, and contributed directly to their success in English. The SEI tech and I are a team, and I cannot imagine my job without this person. Well, let me take that back…

That first year, I knew I was supposed to have a tech working with me, but nobody was hired until October.  At the end of the year, that person was promoted, which left me once again without a tech the following fall… until October.  Then, the wonderful and experienced person we hired moved to another city to be with family and return to school so she could become a teacher, and I was left without a helper again until… this last October. Then, the lovely, warm, bilingual person who we hired left abruptly in January. Then, we hired someone away from another department in our school. I didn’t make any friends with that development!

Whew! Why is it so hard to attract and retain people?  

It’s possible I have simply experienced a trail of bad luck. I know techs in some schools that have been there for years and years. Or maybe I have a body odor issue nobody is telling me about?

But the root of the problem is more likely the requirements of the job when compared to the pay. Pay for techs in these positions can start out below $11.00 an hour. Our school’s position is full time, and includes the option for (expensive) health benefits. However, a lot of the positions in schools for ESPs are for part-time work (under 30 hours per week), which means health insurance isn’t even an option. So we are talking, a barely-over-minimum wage position which usually doesn’t include benefits. Sound appealing? Oh, and you don’t get any hours all summer.

I don’t have the official list of required qualifications, but basically, we were looking for someone who is:

  • Fluently bilingual with English and Spanish (written and oral language).
  • Computer literate.
  • A people person. Communicative.
  • Able to explain academic concepts.
  • Reliable and ethical. A good manager of time.
  • A stickler for detail, yet flexible.

I can’t help but feel that the individual described above deserves more than minimum wage. And, perhaps I am naive, because I haven’t been in the job market much beyond teaching and other contracted work, but I am guessing that someone with the above credentials could get hired almost anywhere in Arizona, for lots of jobs that pay more than $10.50.  This is not a criticism of my district at all; I believe this is a systemic problem across the state in multiple similar crucial positions. 

Maybe we should re-think the meaning of ESP, and call these folks ‘essential support professionals,’ but I think a raise might make them feel more appreciated.

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I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years. My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM. In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me. I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

  • http://www.leadfromINtheclassroom.com/ Jess Ledbetter

    I loved this post, and I feel the same way. As a developmental preschool teacher, I have been blessed to work with a variety of paraprofessionals over the last eight years–always in teams of 2. How I have loved these different women and seen how they benefit the kids. As you mentioned above, the wage for these workers is not competitive. I work hard to keep our environment enjoyable, fun, and supportive–but every year I wonder: Will they come back? Sometimes I even wonder: Should they come back? (or are there better things for them?) I have been fortunate to have stable teams for most of my time teaching, but I am clear that I support everyone doing what is best for their families. And I 100% mean that. As a result, I occasionally have to say goodbye to talented paraprofessionals who get better paying jobs, jobs with more hours, or jobs with better benefits. These times are always sad for me. Next year will be one of them. Finding someone to replace the hole left behind when someone moves to a better position is anxiety provoking. Not to mention: Training these individuals takes a lot of work! I am hopeful that increased state funding can also help raise the wage of ESPs around Arizona. It is time that Arizona stops taking advantage of all the loving people who value working in schools–and do so at the expense of a low wage that may sometimes harm their own families. Great piece!