Paraeducators seek recognition with teachers
Elgin’s Tina Pizzitola decries ‘ignorance of who we are and what we do’
By Ted Cox
ELGIN — If you think teachers are poorly paid, disrespected, and denied benefits others consider routine, try being a paraeducator.
“In a lot of cases, we’re the invisible workforce,” said Tina Pizzitola, a paraeducator in Elgin’s U-46 School District. “People don’t really understand what we do.”
Paraeducators typically help kids with special needs in their schooling, but that comprises a wide range of activities and job descriptions. They can work one-on-one with students as part of their Individualized Education Plan, or like Pizzitola they can work districtwide troubleshooting with students who have learning disabilities or behavioral problems.
“We’re not a room mom or a room helper,” Pizzitola said. “We’re providing instructional support.”
Pizzitola’s colleague Sara Moeller, who typically works hands-on with students who are hyperactive, autistic, or have Down syndrome, cited the U-46 motto: “Academic success for all,” adding, “We are an essential part of academic success for all. Without paraeducators, there’s not going to be the success for those students who maybe need extra support.”
“We are an essential part of academic success for all. Without paraeducators, there’s not going to be the success for those students who maybe need extra support.”
Sara Moeller (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
Paraeducators are usually lumped in with what’s commonly termed Educational Support Professionals — the support staff that keeps schools running smoothly, from bus drivers and lunch ladies to office secretaries and janitors. Yet, while paraeducators help teachers with their actual instruction, they’re not considered teachers. They’re licensed now, requiring two years of college or passing a state test, but they’re not “certified” like teachers, and as such, like other ESPs, they’re typically paid hourly wages, not salaries, and without the benefits teachers merit.
“When you say, ‘What does a bus driver do? A cafeteria worker?’ That’s pretty obvious,” Pizzitola said. “When you say ‘a paraeducator,’ it’s like, ‘Oh, you mean a teacher helper?’ That is how it’s viewed. A lot of parents and people in the education system don’t truly understand what it is that we do and the service we provide.
“It’s an ignorance of who we are and what we do,” she added.
Paraeducators don’t have the status that teachers do, and school districts tend to prefer it that way, because it allows them to shave pay and benefits. Pizzitola just maxed out on the district pay scale for her category of paraeducator at just under $25 an hour, “but I will never make more than this until we rebargain,” she added. Even at that, she’s making just over $30,000 a year. Moeller is making just over $20 an hour after 20 years on the job.
Most paraeducators are making much less than that, “because we have so much turnover in our workforce,” Pizzitola said.
According to Moeller, when they were negotiating a new contract last year, they found that 45 percent of district paraeducators were the primary earner for their family, and 35 percent were the sole source of family income. More than half, 53 percent, were in their first five years on the job, at the low end of the pay scale — some earning below the hot-button minimum salary of $15 an hour — and the median annual pay was $18,407.
“I cannot tell the number of people that we work with — principals, teachers, itinerant staff like our psychologists, social workers — who when they realize what we get paid they’re like, ‘What?’” Pizzitola said. “Our lunch supervisors are paid more than we are. Our bus drivers are paid much more.”
“We’re the lowest-paid union working group,” Moeller added.
The Illinois Education Association recently did a video on their colleague Paulette Rogers Gumbus, making less than $15 an hour after five years on the job (and an additional two as a substitute teacher) and who had to take a holiday job at Target because they’re not paid during holiday break — nor, of course, over summer vacation.
Pizzitola said that, even after years on the job, “I don’t even have the option to be paid year-round.”
Because paraeducators don’t face the same extensive certification process as teachers, the field does tend to attract people who just fall into it as an interest, even if they’re no less devoted to their students than teachers are. Both Pizzitola and Moeller first came to it as mothers who had just sent their youngest children off to first grade.
“I wanted a mother’s hours job,” Moeller said.
But when a school superintendent told Pizzitola during union contract talks last year, “Well, you’re still kind of viewed as a back-to-work mom,” she immediately responded, “Stop right there.”
According to Pizzitola, for most of the people entering the field, “unfortunately it’s a sink-or-swim model in a lot of cases,” with newcomers given little in the way of resources or encouragement to improve their development.
Both worked for years to refine their skills and their craft in a field where schools offer little opportunity for growth aside from what’s gained hands on. “Professional development is a huge struggle statewide — well, nationwide — for support staff,” Pizzitola said. The Illinois Education Association, which has 29,500 ESPs among its 135,000 members, and the National Education Association helped pick up the slack there, she added, with additional training. Pizzitola credited IEAPresident Kathi Griffin with having “a huge respect for ESPs.”
“Professional development is a huge struggle statewide — well, nationwide — for support staff.”
Tina Pizzitola (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
But that hasn’t translated into money, benefits, or stature in the education system. Administrators tend to use the devotion paraeducators have as leverage against them — same as with teachers — only paraeducators don’t have the reverse leverage that they can threaten to shut down a school with a strike. Besides, they’d have a difficult time saving up a strike “war chest” on the wages they’re on.
“They know they really have us between a rock and a hard place, because of our low wages,” Pizzitola said. “A majority of our members really qualify for assistance” — free or reduced lunches for their kids in school, if not food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit come tax time. “With our people, they truly are living day to day, paycheck to paycheck.”
The U-46 paraeducators accepted what turned out to be an 80-cent-an-hour raise on average a year ago rather than go out on strike.
What they’re striving for is recognition, although in many cases they’d settle for being qualified for benefits under the Family Medical Leave Act. “A lot of our paras deal with a lot of physical aggression,” Pizzitola said, because of the temperament problems of so many of the students they deal with. She herself suffered a concussion in April at the hands of a student — the first time she’d been injured in her career — and it was only because she had prepaid her insurance premiums months in advance that she was able to maintain health care during her recovery.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth sponsored what she termed the ESP Family Leave Act in May, joined by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, but it has yet to gain any traction in what Duckworth has called the “legislative graveyard” that is the Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Tangled up with all that bureaucracy is that most ESPs and paraeducators are women — same as with teachers. “It’s a woman’s issue, and now in (Elgin) it’s a civil-rights issue in that we have a lot of minorities who work with us,” Pizztola said. “So it really is a social-justice issue.” She pointed to home-school liaisons, who work in the office translating school memos, notes, and newsletters for parents who might not be fluent English speakers and readers, and vice versa in their communication with the school — yet they’re paid much less than school secretaries.
So paraeducators toil away, striving for the same basic pay and respect that teachers have to fight so hard to earn.
According to Pizzitola, Aurora recently moved to label paraeducators “classified teachers,” compared to the “certified teachers” running the classrooms. “So when students are addressing them they’re all teachers,” she added. The irony there, however, is that Aurora paraeducators are paid even worse than their counterparts in Elgin. “So there is that perception and respect,” Pizzitola said. “The paycheck’s not attached to it, and the benefits aren’t attached to it, but they are working on the respect.
“We really, truly are there for our students, and if it wasn’t for our students we wouldn't do what we do, and the district knows it,” Pizzitola said. “Part of the reason why we don’t stand up for ourselves is that really it hurts our kids. They truly are our kids.”