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My (exhausting, inspiring, unforgettable) 'day' as a PSRP

AFT Vice President Dan Montgomery with a child

IFT Photo

This fall, Illinois Federation of Teachers president and AFT vice president Dan Montgomery, at right, shadowed paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRPs) on the job in advance of the state's PSRP Day on Nov. 16, an annual celebration of school and college support staff. Here's what he wrote about his experience. 

LET'S FACE IT, most people are not aware of the work school support staff do. Perhaps that's because when done well, their work is invisible. We expect kids to learn. We expect the school environment to be friendly and safe. We expect lunchrooms to be clean and the lights to work and the grounds to be free of snow. But what many do not understand is that it takes more than classroom teachers to ensure all those things happen. And without PSRPs, they would not happen at all.

So, I decided to walk in the shoes of a PSRP for a day. Four PSRPs, to be exact—two classroom assistants, a playground supervisor and a lunchroom custodian—at Woodland Elementary School in Gurnee. As an 18-year high school English teacher, I wanted to gain a better understanding for what it means to be a PSRP.

I was charged with helping a half-dozen third-graders learn to write four-digit numbers in expanded form, assisting an 8-year-old with special needs as he connected blocks and discovered that adding three and four makes seven, hustling dozens of rambunctious first- through third-graders into lunch from a raucous playground, sweeping gummi bears and Cheetos off the floor in a loud and lively cafeteria, and then wiping down a huge room full of tables before the next group of kids scrambled in to eat and the cleaning process began again. My shift started at 9:30 a.m. (late, I know) and ended at 12:30 p.m. And in those three short hours, I was toast!

What I learned was eye-opening, inspiring and truly unforgettable. I witnessed the high level of commitment, energy and dedication it takes to support students with learning disorders and physical disabilities. I watched in awe as PSRPs worked in tandem with classroom teachers to teach lessons and supervise and support students—academically, socially and emotionally. And I wondered at their organizational skills and boundless energy as they worked to ensure students were in a happy, safe, clean environment in the building and on the school grounds. As I shadowed these PSRPs and tried to fill their shoes for three short hours, I quickly learned that trying to keep a table of six third-graders on task like classroom assistant Mary Reiling did during a math lesson takes more hands and eyes than I have. I learned that a skilled classroom assistant like Jenny Garza can anticipate a teacher's every move, helping to enhance the lesson and make it fun. I learned that really good playground supervisors like Julie Snyder know every child by name, pick them up when they fall, protect them from bullying, enforce safety rules, and ensure kids enjoy some play time. And I learned that keeping busy lunchrooms spotless while hundreds of kids are eating is almost impossible, but dedicated custodians like Blanca Gonzales make it look easy.

The level of caring and commitment shown by each of these PSRPs I had the honor to observe and work alongside was nothing less than inspiring. My experience as a PSRP made it clearer to me than ever before that we owe PSRPs our gratitude and respect. And we owe it to our students to educate parents and the public about how these dedicated professionals are vital to kids' success.

This PSRP Day—and every day—let's thank PSRPs for all they do for our children,
our schools and our communities.

With gratitude to all our PSRPs and in solidarity,

Dan Montgomery
President, Illinois Federation of Teachers