Everyday Heroes: Making a Difference


It’s every school staff member’s duty to look out for the well-being of students, but classified employees who excel at their jobs and go the extra mile for students are the unsung heroes of education.

Walk onto any public school campus in California and you’ll find an extra helpful front office secretary who makes everyone feel welcome, a friendly custodian who’s always available to move furniture or clean up a mess, and a paraeducator who has a knack for helping students learn math, reading and writing. But classified employees’ dedication doesn’t end with their job descriptions. In fact, many classified employees supplement their work with special deeds to make others on campus feel good about themselves, to connect with students, and to help those with emotional or material needs. Classified employees often save the day by taking quick action selflessly, connecting with challenging students, and performing unexpected good deeds.

“Being helpful is in the DNA of CSEA members and that’s what we signed up to do,” Association President Ben Valdepeña said. “Our members are an outstanding group, and many are heroes in their schools and their communities.”

Providing exceptional service every day

Classified employees know the importance of their jobs. Without classified employees, some students couldn’t get to school, others would go hungry and others wouldn’t grasp classroom education. For some classified employees, like Jorge Juarez, a campus security officer for the Desert Sands Unified School District and member of Desert Sands Unified Chapter 106, keeping students out of danger is their primary task.
Juarez’s first assignment in the morning is to do a sweep of his middle school campus to make sure it’s free of hazards and dangers. He then greets students as they come on campus, ensuring they are all in uniform and wearing their identification lanyards. During the day, he makes sure only people who belong on campus are there.

As part of his job, Juarez must be prepared for anything because anything can happen. While patrolling the campus recently, a student ran to him with a worried look. The student told Juarez that another student had something stuck in her throat and couldn’t breathe. Juarez ran to help and found a student choking.

“She wasn’t breathing,” he said. “We have training in CPR and the Heimlich Maneuver, so I did the Heimlich, the item dislodged and she was able to breathe. She was choking on a jawbreaker.”

In this situation, Juarez’s training and quick reaction saved a student’s life but he also helps them with non-life-threatening items all the time. Since he is constantly in contact with students, especially those with discipline problems, Juarez gets to know and relates to them, acts as a mentor, and helps these students simply because he cares.

Relating with students

“We try to connect with them,” Juarez said. “What we do is conflict mediation with these kids. We hear them out and try to help them. The work we do here is not about consequences but about giving advice. We tell them that everyone makes mistakes but we have to learn from them and not repeat them.”
Juarez added most students eventually realize he’s looking out for their best interest. They return after they’ve been promoted from his middle school just to let him know how he made a difference in their lives.

“They’ll come back and say ‘you’re right,’” he said. “They tell me they are doing better now because of something I said to them when they were here.”

Juarez’s compassion and understanding make him stand out at his school. Teachers know he has a way with kids and will call him for assistance because he has a knack for calming disruptive students.

“We supervise students if the teacher needs a break,” he said. “If a student needs a timeout, we’ll take them for a walk around the school and talk to them. Sometimes they just need a break from sitting.”

Reaching out in unique ways

Like Juarez, many classified employees instinctively know how to reach students. Maybe it’s because they regularly work with them one-on-one, or because classified employees are often long-time residents of the communities they serve and can relate to the students. Perhaps it’s because for a lot of classified employees, students are extensions of their own family.

Marisela Badillo, a member of Berryessa Chapter 364, exemplifies how classified employees treat students like a part of their own family. Badillo, a 32-year employee of the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, discovered when her five children were growing up that the prospect of a home-cooked meal was motivation for doing good work in school. She uses delicious meals as rewards for the students she helps as a paraeducator at Sierramont Middle School.

“At one point I was working with a very tough class,” she said. “I promised them that if they did their best and got above a “C” average, I would cook for them. They did, so I brought them tostadas. I made the meat, rice, beans—everything from scratch.”

Badillo understands many students come from homes where a home-cooked meal is a rare treat because parents work long hours. She said they especially love it when she brings in breakfast.

“If they bring in all their homework or get good grades on a test, I’ll make pancakes or waffles for them,” she said. “I always try to cultivate a good relationship by showing them love and respect.”

Building mutual respect

Badillo said she, along with fellow paraeducators Vu Nam and Shefali Patel, tries to make sure students know they can trust her. Badillo knows guidance and support are the best things she can give her special education students.

“I tell them we all learn differently and we all come from different backgrounds but we have to try our best,” she said.

Badillo added the main thing she teaches students is to respect themselves and others. She said she offers constructive advice and sometimes helps them understand why they should make different choices.

“I do the best I know how for them and I will continue to do so,” she said.

Creating special connections

Ronda Vaughn, a security officer for Madera Unified School District and member of Madera Unified Chapter 169, also treats students like family. Vaughn grew up in the neighborhood and has been working for the district so long that she knew some parents of current students at Madera South High School when they were students themselves.

“These kids always make my day,” she said. “You laugh with them and you cry with them. To me, it’s success if they feel they can come to me when they need anything.”

Vaughn keeps an ear out while at work to find out if she can help students in need or give them something. For example, if she notices someone doesn’t have a coat for the cold winter months, she’ll get one for them.

“I raid the closets of my own kids to bring jackets for the less fortunate students,” she said. “I’ll slip it to a counselor or give it to them directly. I think they like to see that someone cares about them.”

A caring approach

Vaughn’s compassion for the students runs so deep that when a student suddenly passed away, she stepped up to help the family with burial costs.

“The student who passed away was always on my radar,” Vaughn said. “She had grown up a lot in the last few months and it was devastating to me when she passed away.”

To help the family, Vaughn made and sold popcorn as a fundraiser.

“I used my mom’s recipe for caramel popcorn,” she said. “I sold the popcorn for $10 a bag. People came through in a big way. I had a lot of orders. I was making big batches of popcorn every day after work. It was quite the ordeal but, wow, we got a big turnout.”

Vaughn raised $1,000 for the student’s family. To her, it’s rewarding to go beyond the call of duty because she understands her actions have an impact.

“It’s a good feeling,” she said. “I like to stand in front of the school every morning and greet the students. I don’t know what kind of day or night they’ve had, so if I can make them smile then I’ve done my job.”

Making a difference

Richard Weyand, a custodial supervisor for the Walnut Creek School District and president of Walnut Creek Chapter 202, also likes to show students he cares about them by making them smile. Weyand is a popular figure at Park Mead Elementary School and even has his own lunchtime show at the school with jokes and music.

“If the kids are good, I bring them up on stage with me so they can talk into the microphone,” he said. “It’s a good way to get them used to speaking in big groups.”

Weyand is so popular that the school has a fundraiser where parents pay $125 so their kids can shadow him for a day

“It’s become a good fundraiser for our school and our district,” he said. “I have about 50 of those kids a year. It gives me the opportunity to get to know the kids better, and it gives them a chance to see the school through different eyes and fosters knowledge of the school. The kids are really keen on being me for a day. The money goes into the general fund to pay for para-educators, technology and projects around the school.”

Weyand says he also gives kids with special needs the chance to shadow him as a reward for doing well in class.\

“It’s a positive reinforcement tool for special needs kids and resource students,” he said.

Helping students grow

Some might not think the school’s custodian can have a hand in helping students learn but that’s exactly what Weyand does. He uses his buoyant personality and strong work ethic to show students that being a good person has its rewards.

“You give your best and people can see who you are,” he said. “Elementary school kids don’t come up and ask how much you make, how many degrees you have or what kind of car you drive. Kids are only interested in how you are then and there as you stand before them as a human. That’s an incredible place to be because you can be an honest person and they can tell you care about them.”

Weyand says he always tries to teach students that kindness and caring pay off. Weyand has many tools in his arsenal to teach kids about compassion and responsibility, but the good example he and other classified employees like him set through their actions is what students remember for the rest of their lives.

“We’re always trying to get the kids to think more simplistically about achieving respectful behavior,” he said. “We tell them that if they can’t remember the other 5,000 rules that we have to always remember the most important rule: be kind.”


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