By Kathryn Coulibaly
The Livingston Education Association (LEA) has become the second association in the state to launch an Educational Support Professional (ESP) mentorship program, thanks to the hard work and advocacy of its members.
Livingston’s teaching assistants have had a rough road. Fourteen years ago, Lisa Bonvini, Beth Waldron and Cathy Lindsey were full-time employees with benefits. Two years later, teaching assistants were outsourced and they all lost their benefits. When the commission brought them back, it was part-time at 28.75 hours and no benefits.
This change affected only the teaching assistants and encouraged many of them to become more involved in their local association.
“We all became representatives of the building,” recalls Waldron. “We started going to meetings and we got more and more involved in the union. We wanted to ensure that the voice of our teaching assistants continues to be heard in our union and at our executive board meetings.
“Then about six years ago I joined the negotiating team,” Bonvini said. “My goal was to get our benefits back.”
In their last round of bargaining, the teacher assistants won single teacher assistant coverage, but no family coverage. They also regained their full-time status and were able to eliminate a horrible practice where every teaching assistant received a reduction in staff letter (RIF) every May. They would not know until June if they would be hired for the next school year.
Thanks to those victories at the bargaining table, Livingston won the 2021 NJEA Jim George Collective Bargaining Award, but Bonvini, Waldron and Lindsey weren’t done. They firmly believed that the damage to teacher assistant morale could not be repaired at the bargaining table.
Bonvini was on Facebook over the last Memorial Day weekend, a rainy weekend, and saw a post about the ESP mentorship program offered by NEA.
“I thought it was a great idea; there’s nothing worse than seeing a teaching assistant come in and be thrown into a classroom. You don’t know where to park, when to register, how lunches work,” Bonvini said. “I knew Beth and Cathy would jump at this idea, so we decided to apply.”
Livingston’s candidacy for the NEA was approved, and LEA President Anthony Rosamilia recommended working with Lisa Steiger, the assistant superintendent, on the mentorship program.
“Having Lisa Steiger work with us on this project has been very beneficial,” Bonvini said. “We knew what the administration would support, and we could work with that. Beth, Cathy, and I met Lisa over the summer, along with our NEA liaison and in-state mentor, Olive Giles, who is the vice president of the Princeton Regional Educational Support Staff Association. Olive started the state’s first ESP mentorship program at Princeton, and we’ve learned a lot from her experience. »
The team worked all summer, mostly via Zoom, to learn all they could from NEA and Giles and to create the program and materials. Waldron, Lindsey, Bonvini and Steiger spent countless hours developing a program that would meet the unique needs of Livingston’s teaching assistants.
“We had our hair up in scrunchies sitting around a table working on it all summer,” Bonvini recalls.
Mentors are leaders and ambassadors
Their hard work and neglect of their hair has paid off. By the end of the summer they were ready. The program began with the 2021-22 school year. The team brought in the mentors and trained them. They went over the things they learned from NEA and compiled a brief for each mentor on what topics they should be sure to cover. Every month, mentors meet with their mentee for at least an hour and check it in, but they are available anytime for their mentees.
Some of the topics that they make sure are covered at the start are the teaching assistant job description, the teaching assistant handbook, the culture in the building, and the importance of confidentiality. They emphasize to mentors that they are leaders and ambassadors; they do not evaluate mentees. They also cross ethical and professional boundaries regarding relationships with students, parents, and staff. Topics range from practical to those that are essential but unique to the school environment. For example, in October, they talk about how to register for benefits and protocol for Halloween.
Each month the council announces new hires. Bonvini monitors the roster and if there are new teaching assistants, she lets the mentors know to reach out.
Currently there are 11 mentors, one for each building and two in the high school. One elementary school has an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program. At this school, there is a mentor for the regular program teaching assistant and one for the ABA teaching assistant, as needs and protocols may be different. In total, there are approximately 45 mentees.
Improving the work of ESPs
The impact of the mentorship program is already being felt in Livingston, not only among the teaching assistants, but throughout the school community.
“It’s important to help teacher assistants feel comfortable, engaged and part of our school community,” Lindsey said. “It’s good for students, teachers and the rest of the staff.”
“Here at Livingston, we really see the power of mentorship and the potential it has to help people succeed and stay in the profession, so we wanted to extend that to teaching assistants who work hand-in-hand with teachers,” said LEA President Anthony. said Rosamilia. “Every opportunity we have, we want to elevate the work of ESP members, but our teaching assistants specifically need to be in the spotlight. We are really pleased that the administration saw the value of this program and that the Assistant Superintendent attended over the summer to assist with the mentorship program.
“NEA has been impressed with the relationship we have with the administration,” Bonvini said. “It meant a lot to have Lisa Steiger working around the table with us; not all districts have this.
Bonvini, Waldron and Lindsey are hopeful for the program’s future.
“Our team is going to meet mid-year and again at the end of the year to assess what we think is working and what we would like to change,” Bonvini said. “We are funded by the NEA this year, but we will have to work to find funding in the future. I hope people see the value in it. Our goal is to firmly establish our program so we can go out there like Olive and help other districts start ESP mentorship programs across the state. Every district in NJ should have an ESP mentorship program! »
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of NJEA journal and provides content and support for njea.org. She can be reached at [email protected]