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.