California’s Legislature recognizes the important contributions of classified school employees and named the third full week of May “Classified School Employee Week” (CSEW) to honor these contributions. This year, that week is May 20–26.
Since 1986, California has taken the third week in May to honor the invaluable contributions of classified school employees. In 2012, we will be celebrating the week with the theme, “Classified Employees: A Legacy of Service.”
Classified School Employee Week began as a resolution at CSEA’s Annual Conference in 1984. Two years later, it was adopted as California Senate Bill 1552 and decreed to be an official recognition of classified school employees. Today, CSEA members celebrate the week with picnics, barbecues and other social events. At work, many members wear CSEA shirts and other symbols of union pride.
Caring about students
Whatever the reason that CSEA members became classified employees, they realize they can enrich the lives of students, not only by performing their duties exceptionally well, but also by serving as friends, mentors, role models and guardians.
Classified school employees interact with students on a daily basis for years, so forming a trustworthy bond is inevitable. In most cases, classified school employees know the faces and names of the students. They inspire students, joke with them, cheer them up and give them advice.
“CSEA members never hesitate to go above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that the students they serve not only receive the support they need to learn, but also to serve as positive role models and to ensure that students know they have someone they can confide in at school,” Association President Allan Clark said.
Each worker from Antioch Chapter 85 interviewed for this story represents a classified job classification. Over a combined 129 years of service to students, these classified employees have refined their crafts and learned about the importance of their roles in education.
Performing important jobs
Every classified job serves a purpose. Some provide support to students and others make sure schools are sanctuaries of education. Due to education budget cuts over the past few years, classified school employees are often required to perform multiple duties and work hard to stretch school districts’ dollars.
In the case of maintenance workers such as Antioch Unified School District’s Tom Sellers, this means using his skills as a welder to make equipment last longer.
“When I come in to work, I always have a stack of work orders,” he said. “I do a lot of cutting, burning and fabricating. I’ve made parts for rototillers, repairs on motorized equipment and brackets. There are many things that the district doesn’t have to buy because we can make them. That saves the district money.”
Sellers doesn’t work directly with students, but they still see the result of his work when they are protected by a metal fence he mended or use a piece of sports equipment he repaired.
“A lot of the things I do are to respond to vandalism by fixing chain link fences and gates,” said Sellers, who has worked for the district for 24 years. “I weld the goals for soccer practice so that the students can use them.”
Students in the classroom often don’t realize how many classified employees worked to create a positive learning environment free of distractions, performing a variety of behind-the-scenes tasks so that instruction can continue without interruption.
Office Assistant Linda Rambeau-Jaime, who has worked for Antioch Unified for 12 years, handles attendance issues, orders supplies for the classroom and makes sure that the copy machines used to print class handouts are functioning properly at Antioch’s Lone Tree Elementary School. She answers parents’ inquiries, and receives medicine and lunches that parents drop off for students. She also performs first-aid on students when necessary.
“Sometimes if these students don’t get patched up, they are going to miss the instructional minutes,” she said. “If they are late, I like to give them tips on what to do to get to school on time. I try to give them some steps they can take to get them in a positive routine so they aren’t late all of the time.”
The contributions of other classified school employees are more evident since they supplement what’s done in the classroom. Dorothy Smith, a paraeducator who has worked for Antioch Unified for 32 years, assists special education students. She helps students by working with them individually and finding creative ways to get them to retain information.
“I keep trying different ways to get them to understand until I find what turns the light bulb on,” she said. “Sometimes that requires repeating things or making them look at things from different angles. It’s just a matter of going over things time after time and explaining things in different ways until they see the light.”
Smith understands that without her help, students who fall behind might never be able to catch up to their grade level.
“They get farther and farther behind, and that means that each year they lose ground and they’re not ready to advance to the next grade,” she said. “That’s why they need individual help.”
For library media technician Cindy Hoops, a 15-year employee at Antioch Unified, contributing to education means arriving at school early to make sure that the library is open to students before class in case they need to finish a research project, print a term paper or look for books.
“We are the support system for education,” she said. “We’re the spokes in the wheel of education. We help students if they’re looking for a book, researching data or navigating the Internet. We see everyone during the school year whenever they need textbooks, reading books or help with the computer.”
Connecting with students
Understanding how they can make a difference in a student’s life through their work or through their personal touch is another part of what makes classified school employees an integral part of schools.
Antioch Unified food service clerk Cathy Bourassa knows that a hot school meal helps students stay focused in class. She also knows that taking a few extra seconds to interact with students in a lunch line can make a difference in their day. Bourassa, who has worked for the district for 21 years, said she takes time to make students who seem upset feel better and to teach important life lessons.
“We can have a positive impact on them,” she said. “If a student in line is crying, I’ll stop the line to find out why. If a student is coming through the line and they’re speaking English incorrectly, I’ll try to correct them. I see the same students every day and it really means a lot to them if I take the time to learn their names.”
Like Bourassa, bus driver Paula Wilkins understands the importance of connecting with students. She said that knowing she’s the first person students see after leaving their home gives her the opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the day.
“We’re an important part of their school day,” Wilkins said.
After a quarter- century of driving school buses, Wilkins knows she can lend a sympathetic ear and be a friend to students. When students have had a bad day, Wilkins’ tells them to leave it at the gates of the school and remember that they can start out fresh the next day.
“Sometimes, they just need someone to talk to. It’s nice to provide that for them,” she said.
Dedication to student success
Classified school employees know helping students succeed requires more than performing their jobs exceptionally well. There has to be a human touch to how they do their jobs because students can sense when an individual genuinely cares. Hoops said that the success of students is foremost in her mind when she’s at work.
“We try our best to help students learn,” she said. “As library media techs, we have this motto that these students should go to college. If we don’t teach them these basic research skills, they are going to have a really tough time in college.”
For Smith, measuring student success doesn’t always mean waiting to see the results of a test or a grade on a homework assignment. She measures success by the many small victories students achieve over the course of time.
“There are so many ways to work with a child,” she said. “I try to find what works best for them so that they can understand the assignment and finish it. I give the students rewards and treats for their good work, but it’s also important to reward effort. You can’t base everything on the final product. Sometimes, you have to measure success by the effort they put into trying to get it done.”
Whether they work helping a child learn, providing warm meals, taking students to school or ensuring a safe learning environment, classified school employees thrive off knowing that the work they have done for the day will make a difference in someone’s life.
“I go home knowing that I accomplished something and made a difference to make someone else’s job easier or safer,” Sellers said.
Although members of Antioch Chapter 85 were used for this story, all CSEA chapters illustrate how different classified employees support education and why they feel a sense of dedication to students.