Meet ESP of the Year Nancy Cogland

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An educator and a lawyer who is always by your side

By Kathryn Coulibaly

Nancy Cogland, paraprofessional at Old Bridge High School and NJEA’s 2022 Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year, shivers in a brisk December wind as she waits for buses to pull up outside of the huge high school. She greets each student with a smile, escorting them from a parent’s bus or car to the building’s main entrance. Some students need more hugs than others, and Cogland’s bright smile is a big motivator.

Along with his other paraprofessional colleagues, Cogland is one of the first members of the school community to greet students kindly but effectively each day, ensuring they start the day on the right foot.

It’s a role Cogland knows well and excels at. For the past 17 years, Cogland has served as a paraprofessional in the Old Bridge School District, building relationships and shaping good days for the many students she has met along the way.

“I love being around high school kids,” Cogland said. “Adolescence is difficult to live with. My students know they can count on my support, both inside and outside the classroom. Because they trust me, they are willing to allow me to push them out of their comfort zone to achieve what I know they are capable of.

“So many times, it’s as simple as walking past and giving them gum and saying, ‘I’m glad you did your homework last night. I’m proud of you.’ This validates their efforts and encourages them to keep trying, thus boosting their confidence.

Cogland still hears from former students, long after they graduate, which speaks to the trust she builds in the class.

“They know I’m a cheerleader for them and they’re always happy to share their latest accomplishments,” Cogland said. “I love hearing about their college experience or their new job and how much they’ve grown.”

For many years, Cogland was associated with the same student and she built a strong bond with him and his family.

“I knew him as well as I know my own kids,” Cogland said. “I still get text messages from his mother telling me about their family. She writes, ‘our boy just turned 18.’ She feels that I am part of her family and always will be. I provided structure and boundaries while ensuring he had the full high school experience.

A respected paraprofessional and leader

Cogland likes that every day is different and every school year is different. She can work with one teacher in a class full of students or work with one student at a time to ensure they stay focused on their task and are confident in their ability to complete the work.

Cogland is a welcome and valued member of the classrooms she enters, ensuring that the student she is associated with is comfortable and safe. She has strong relationships with the teachers she works with, especially the husband and wife team of Andrew and Erin Borriello.

Cogland collaborates with his co-workers and helps develop new projects in the carpentry shop.

Andrew, a carpentry shop teacher, collaborates frequently with Cogland, not only to ensure that the students she is associated with participate in the course, but also to develop projects that all students can tackle.

Cogland’s interest in woodworking is infectious and his enthusiasm for discussing and sharing the projects the students have completed is very clear.

Erin, a social studies teacher, has an equally strong connection to Cogland. They often work together to discuss student needs and plan activities.

“So many of these kids are defeated before they even start because they think they can’t do the job,” Cogland said. “But the teachers and I are fully aware of what the students can achieve. Sometimes it’s a stretching activity to get them to see what they can do. We know their strengths and weaknesses and want the best for them. I make sure the students know that we are all part of the same team, working in their best interests.

Cogland’s ESP colleagues wholeheartedly join in his praise.

“We have confidence in Nancy,” said Lisa Tonnisen, also a paraprofessional at Old Bridge. “As vice-president of our union and paraprofessional representative, Nancy has shown leadership, strength and dedication to all of us. We have the security of knowing that Nancy will protect us and ensure that our District sees how valuable paraprofessionals are to our students and all that we do to meet their needs throughout the school year.

The value of the union

Growing up in a heavily unionized family on Staten Island, Cogland knew she wanted to join the NJEA when she began her career in education.

“I’ve always been in the union,” Cogland said. “But I may not have understood exactly what that meant and its value until the district sought to privatize paraprofessionals for the first time in 2011 to fill a budget shortfall.”

“The union was involved immediately,” recalls Cogland. “They tried to protect our jobs. In the end, the paraprofessionals had to vote in an emergency meeting: would we keep our jobs and lose our family health benefits or risk losing our jobs and benefits. We voted and unfortunately gave up our family allowances.

It was a huge success for many of Cogland’s colleagues.

It was such an awful feeling,” Cogland said. “I know the union did what it could; they wanted to save our jobs. But some of my colleagues worked two or three jobs to make ends meet; they needed the health benefits they got as paraprofessionals.

The summer after the privatization battle, a friend of Cogland’s encouraged her to attend the NJEA’s Summer Leadership Conference where she met Bob Antonelli, NJEA’s ESP Field Representative , and Nancy Holmes, NJEA Field Representative in Camden who is now retired.

“They were phenomenal,” Cogland said. “This conference changed everything for me. It made me take myself seriously in this career.

During the next round of negotiations, the union was successful in having the paraprofessionals’ benefits reinstated, but Cogland was convinced that the situation should never have happened.

“You can’t change the past, but I felt strongly that I wasn’t going to let that happen again,” Cogland said.

Cogland enjoys working with the students in the carpentry shop.

An unforgettable anti-privatization campaign

Cogland began working with parents of general and special education students.

“I used the NJEA Pride program to partner with special education parents in the district,” Cogland said. “We started to develop a connection between paraprofessionals and parents because they saw the value we had in their children’s lives.”

As Cogland predicted, privatization has once again come to the district.

In 2017, Cogland received a mid-day call from the local president, informing her that the council had released its agenda: privatization of paraprofessionals was once again one of the items.

Cogland knew that the paraprofessionals at Old Bridge provided enormous value to students and the community that could not easily be replaced, and she was determined to show the Old Bridge School Board how much was at stake if it voted for the privatization.

“I hung up on the phone with my local president and immediately called the PTA president for special education,” Cogland recalled. “She said, ‘We can’t let this happen. Nancy, I’m calling mine,” and I said, “I’m calling mine. Together we rallied our supporters and gathered 300 people at this board meeting. But that was just the start.”

What followed was an anti-privatization campaign that no one in the community will forget. The most powerful tool at their disposal was to tell the stories of paraprofessionals and their profound impact on students on a daily basis.

Cogland’s daughter had taken television production classes at Old Bridge High School, and Cogland’s husband, Gary, works in advertising. Together they created testimonial videos featuring dedicated Old Bridge paraprofessionals which were then shared on social media.

“We asked three questions of video participants: why did you want to be a paraprofessional, how long have you been a paraprofessional, and what is your favorite memory of your work?”

Some videos have been viewed over 5,000 times. This has people wondering why anyone would lay off these essential employees.

As Cogland recalled, “You couldn’t go anywhere in town without seeing a business sign, a yard sign, or a social media video. One board member said it had come to the point where he didn’t even want to walk into his favorite pizzeria anymore because he would be faced with questions about privatization.

On April 1 of that year, the superintendent informed the union that he would not privatize the paraprofessionals; they would find the funds elsewhere.

Cogland was relieved, but also proud.

“Old Bridge has always been a leader with its educational programs, policies and opportunities for every student,” Cogland said. “I was proud that the Old Bridge School Board decided to turn the tide and come up with a different solution. They set an example for other districts to follow.

“We came out completely unscathed,” she said. “We kept our jobs and our benefits. We showed the community the value of what we do and we showed our colleagues the power we have when we work together.

proud family

Cogland’s family, which includes husband Gary, oldest daughter Erica and youngest daughter Carolyn, supports her in her career and union activism. She devotes much of her time to Pride activities and working with parents and the community. They are extremely proud of her achievement as the NJEA’s 2022 ESP of the Year.

“At the end of the day, I’m a windy person,” Cogland said. “I love helping people succeed and that’s why this attention is so hard for me. I love blending in. But above all else, I want people to know the value and impact that educational support professionals provide. We reach children no one else can reach. We are an essential part of ensuring that every child receives what they need to succeed both emotionally and educationally.

While the global pandemic may disrupt some of the benefits of being the NJEA ESP of the Year, Cogland has already been nominated for the NEA ESP of the Year award. She will attend the NEA ESP conference and is entitled to a Disney vacation, funded by the NJEA, when it is safe to travel. Cogland will also receive an ESP Ring of the Year, she will be a guest speaker at the NJEA ESP conference, and she will be honored at the 2022 NJEA convention.

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