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Lessons Learned: Life as an Education Support Professional

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Educational Support Professionals Day is Wednesday, November 16, 2022.

I was a Special Ed Assistant for three years in a Wisconsin intermediate school. It was the hardest and most rewarding job I have ever had. It was also the most invisible. Inside a school, staff know the incredible value of education support professionals. Outside a school, most people don’t know what ESPs do, or that they exist at all. And yet, I would say ESPs make schools run. ESPs make education accessible for so many children, and ESPs enrich our communities.

Here are some lessons I taught and some lessons I learned when I was Ms. Abby, the ESP.

With my students, but they weren’t the only ones who needed it; I learned to be patient with myself. I had a student who growled, often at me, when he was frustrated. At first, I was taken aback, unsure of how to react. I’ll admit, I got frustrated, and a little angry, but not with him – with myself for not knowing what to do. There were a lot of times I didn’t know what to do. I learned to be patient in those moments (ok, I learned to try to be patient in those moments) and try, try again later.

Representation matters in a classroom.
I remember sitting with a student, reading about General George Washington in the history textbook we used, and suddenly, my student started flipping through the book, page by page. She kept turning pages until she found a photograph of Ruby Bridges. She turned to me and said, “I was looking for someone who looked like me. Can we study her instead?” So we did. Yes, we learned about the Revolutionary War, and I made sure we talked about Black soldiers, but we also read everything we could find about the children of the Civil Rights movement.

A year later, I sat next to her as we watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and I will never forget when she spontaneously stood up to salute as he took the oath of office.

Flexibility is a must-have, not a nice-to-have.
I saw great teachers plan lessons intricately and thoroughly… and then throw them out when they adapted on the fly to students’ needs they hadn’t anticipated. And meeting those needs – academic, social emotional, nutritional, and more – that was what we needed to do. And so we did, even if that meant flying by the seat of our pants sometimes.

Students thrive when we form relationships and have high expectations of them.
A student I worked with who read significantly below grade level, and had encountered more trauma than most adults. They worked through complex emotional challenges, and had to climb barrier after barrier when it came to accessing her education. I spent hours with her every day, and I’ll admit, sometimes I didn’t expect her to follow through on her work, and that meant I didn’t follow through on mine, either.

One day, we didn’t have enough time to talk about the reading we had just done together about church bombings during the 1960s. I asked her to do some reflective writing when she went home that night. I don’t think anyone had ever given her homework before (or at least, had not expected her to do it), and frankly, I wasn’t expecting much.

She came back the next day with a poem, four stanzas long, each stanza in a different voice of the one of the four girls who were killed in Birmingham, written in the shape of a cross.

It used onomatopoeia, repetition and rhyme, powerful symbolism, and there was so much passion behind her words. A month later, she performed her poem at an open mic hosted at the local library. While we were there, she asked me to help her get a library card. I was so proud of her.  I still am.

Joy is an essential component in education.
We laughed a lot. There was the time I couldn’t remember my multiplication tables and the kids had to step in. The time I was monitoring recess and missed the kickball by so far that I fell down and needed to be helped back to my feet. The time I misunderstood the lesson and the kids had to correct me.

Maybe, that was actually the lesson: there will be times you mess up in life. Look for help, accept it… and then laugh a little.

Gratitude. So much gratitude.
These students taught me so much, and I am forever grateful.

Since leaving my job as an ESP, I’ve been a classroom teacher, a domestic violence advocate, a public health worker, and I now work in education policy. Every single day, I miss these kids, think of these memories, and hold their lessons close. I keep a little Ms. Abby and the lessons she learned with me, everywhere I go.

This item was submitted by Abigail Swetz, communications director at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.