Celebrating the everyday heroes of California schools
The word “hero” is often used to describe people who make extraordinary efforts to help others. It evokes images of firefighters running into burning buildings, soldiers putting their lives at risk to protect our country, and good Samaritans helping complete strangers during a time of crisis.
But many heroes often go unnoticed. They don’t wear capes or have feature-length films created about their adventures and triumphs. These people are heroes every day in the way they approach life and the people around them, in how they internalize their job and life responsibilities, and in their compassion toward the most vulnerable members of our communities.
Classified school employees embody these attributes through their service to students, their communities and public education. During Classified School Employee Week (CSEW), we celebrate the “Everyday Heroes” that go above and beyond to keep schools running smoothly and nurture the leaders of tomorrow.
Association President Ben Valdepeña said much of classified employees’ work occurs behind-the-scenes, outside of public view, and during nighttime hours when most people are fast asleep.
“Most people know that schools just wouldn’t operate without classified employees,” Valdepeña said. “But, all too often, we don’t acknowledge the dedication, courage and heart with which our members approach their responsibilities, communities and students. This is why our theme for CSEW this year is ‘Everyday Heroes,’ to spotlight and pay respect to the heroic efforts classified employees regularly exert to ensure that every student receives the support and care they need.”
Classified employees are the first on campuses every school day, preparing schools for the arrival of students. School bus drivers arrive before sunrise to perform safety checks on their buses and roll out to collect students. Custodians unlock doors, ensure schools are safe and free of potential hazards, and maintain a classroom environment conducive to learning. Food service workers prepare nutritious meals and deliver lunches and snacks to sites throughout school districts, while clerks, secretaries and other clerical employees prepare for the mass influx of students ready to learn.
Cheryl Kelley, a special needs bus driver with Sweetwater Union High School District, performs required safety checks on her bus before beginning her route and delivering students to three different schools. After students are safely delivered to their destinations, she usually takes other students to worksites where they learn job skills and build confidence. Then, it’s time to take all of the students back home.
“The afternoon is usually a little livelier,” she said. “I always enjoy the student who wants to sit behind me and share their day or what is coming up tomorrow. Then it’s time to re-fuel, complete daily paperwork and prepare the bus for the next day.”
William Martinez, a computer technician with Alhambra Unified School District, supports the technology needs for the staff and students at Alhambra High School. Martinez preps computer labs for a variety of uses, helps school staff and students with their computer problems (though he said students usually are quick to figure things out themselves), and ensures technology-based instruction tools are working and ready for use by teachers when students arrive. Martinez said he’s never quite sure what might happen on any particular day.
“No two days are ever identical,” he said. “I try to stay visible on campus. I’m one person supporting the entire school.”
Special education instructional aide Dustin Huber works one-on-one with a student every day. Huber meets his student upon arrival just after 7 a.m. and helps him through the day, whether accompanying him to lunch and class, talking to him when behavior is an issue, or providing a sympathetic ear when the student needs it.
“Every day I need to be a paraeducator, friend and supporter,” Huber said. “Every student has different needs.”
As a clerk at Alisal Community School, Solange Keiko Inoue wears many hats. Her daily responsibilities include processing attendance, greeting and helping parents and visitors when they arrive, assisting teachers with student information and classroom materials, and administering first-aid to students who are ill or injured.
“Students are my first concern and when they feel sick or in pain, I help them smile and feel more comfortable while they wait for their parents,” she said. “Helping them feel safe and know that someone cares for them is the most important thing.”
Every day, classified employees make a difference in the lives of students, oftentimes not in the way many would think. Our contributions to public education go much deeper than the services we provide, and CSEA members are well aware of the value we add to students’ lives and how our work is more than completing our daily tasks.
Staff Services Assistant Susie Luna supports the special education department at Rowland Unified School District. As part of her daily responsibilities, Luna ensures that special education teachers and paraeducators have the materials and resources they need to make connections with students.
“Although my position does not require me to interact with the students on a daily basis, I am able to make a difference for them daily by ensuring they are equipped with the appropriate supplies and materials that will help them to excel and succeed in their academics,” she said. “As the accountant for my department, all the teachers, specialists and paraeducators depend on me for the items they need to function every day. Our special education students require a wide range of daily necessities and I am responsible for making sure these needs are fulfilled.”
At Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, paraeducator Daisy Bennett works one-on-one with a special education student who uses a wheelchair and a walker. Bennett ensures the student’s safety as she accompanies her to classes, takes notes, ensures that she doesn’t get too fatigued as they make their way around campus, and always remains vigilant for health issues, including being mindful that her student could have a seizure at any time.
Bennett spends a lot of time watching students for any signs that they may need help or are experiencing a medical issue. She documents behaviors that could indicate bigger issues. Her vigilance paid off with her student when she communicated with the parents about some observations she and her co-worker had made. A trip to a medical specialist confirmed that the student had a condition that was causing sudden and severe fatigue, which required major surgery to correct.
“It was a subtle change that happened a few times a day,” Bennett said. “I am always vigilant for silent seizures or anything out of the ordinary.”
Just as most adults have fond memories about a particular classified employee in their past—perhaps the school custodian or lunch lady—students today enjoy a special connection with classified employees.
“Every morning, I greet the students. I tell them good morning and ask how they’re doing,” Huber said. “When I was growing up, I never had anyone ask me those things. I feel that it can help the students have a better day, and build more respect and trust in you.”
Martinez said campus supervisors at his school learned that some students and their families were going through tough times. They pooled money to buy gift cards for the students as a way to help. Classified employees let students know they are important, Martinez said, and it makes a huge impact on them. It did on Martinez. He said a secretary that maintained the computer lab when he was in school helped to nurture his love for computers and technology.
“When we were young, we learned what classified employees did even though we didn’t know what they were called,” he said. “We knew how important they were and how chaotic things got when they were gone.
“You might not know what a classified employee does, but the moment that classified employee stops doing what they do, people notice.”
It’s often noted that it takes a special person to be a classified school employee. Time and again, it seems the most caring, compassionate, responsible and respectable people gravitate to classified work in our public schools. While the general public often focuses on the role of teachers and principals in a student’s life, it’s the massive heart of classified employees that makes the biggest impact on students and schools.
“Students are our reason for getting up every day,” Luna said. “There are so many highly educated classified employees who are able to achieve greatness and higher salaries in the private sector, yet they choose to be here to propel our students through their successful educational journey.”
Is there something about classified employees that make us so quick to act when students are in need? Bennett thinks so. She said she truly cares about her students and spends every day working to help prepare them for the future.
“These students are valuable and I have so much hope for them. It’s easy to become attached to them,” she said. “Whether it is helping them get a job, which means they have a better chance to survive after high school, or teaching them the simple task of using a computer and searching for information on the Internet, creating independence for students in any way by helping them is so rewarding.”
Since classified employees are keenly aware of our constant impact on the quality of life for students and their families, we take the extra steps needed to show the school community how much we care, according to Inoue. She said her positive attitude every day matters to students, and they tell her it makes them want to be at school.
“Classified employees are the bridge to the parents, students, teachers, and the community. In my 15 years of working as a classified employee, I’ve seen many employees go above and beyond,” she said. “Some volunteer to help maintain the school’s vegetable gardens because they see how much the children enjoy it. Some classified employees volunteer to help coach sports. Others have assisted families with personal issues like immigration, parenting classes and after-school clubs. Most just take the time to talk to students, which can make the biggest impact of all.”
Kelley shows she cares every day by safely driving kids to and from school—something she has done accident-free for 22 years. Ensuring the bus is safe and clean for operation, that her students feel cared for, that she is well-rested and alert, and that she follows proper procedures and utilizes her training is the way she does her part in accomplishing CSEA’s mission of improving the lives of our students and communities.
“We all have the same goals of accomplishing the very best for our students,” Kelley said. “It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. It is a network of great people that impact students every day. We all make a difference!”
Our public schools exemplify what we can accomplish when we work together for good. Classified and certificated employees, administration and parents all collaborate to prepare students to achieve and create a brighter tomorrow.
“It takes a special person to be a classified employee. We are the support behind the scenes,” Martinez said. “You don’t see us in front of a classroom driving instruction, but we are every bit as important in the delivery of that instruction. Oftentimes, our work goes unnoticed, but it’s essential and important. Your work matters—just ask your students.”
Inoue said that the public often doesn’t understand or appreciate the depth of breadth of our service to students, noting that it’s important for us to let our communities know how much we care for kids.
“It’s important for the community to be aware that classified clean the school, serve meals, assist students in their classrooms, provide transportation, administer specialized healthcare, help keep students safe, maintain the buildings and administer first aid,” Inoue said. “We serve migrant students, special education students, and English learners. We keep technology up and running, develop and maintain the budgets, provide outreach to families and stay connected with local service agencies, and we make sure information is provided to parents. As a key person in an elementary school office, I provide service in every one of the above areas, at least in some small way. The district would identify my most critical job as maintaining attendance. I know my most important job is to care for, mentor, protect, inspire and educate children.”
Bennett said she is in awe of all that her fellow CSEA members do to help students be successful. The hope, encouragement and stability that classified employees give students makes a difference every day. She said classified employees lead by example.
“Classified employees are willing to take on any job to help the students. Clerks will drop what they are doing to become health clerks to take care of a student because our health clerks are part time employees,” Bennett said. “I see custodians climbing high ladders, constantly cleaning up after the students. Food service workers never stop moving to get meals ready for students in hot kitchens. Paraeducators are bit, hit, scratched and tolerate screaming yet they show up every day with a calm voice and smile ready to teach. Secretaries are interrupted over and over again but they smile and help everyone who needs it.”
This CSEW and moving forward, be proud of everything you do to help students feel valued and give them the best opportunity to succeed. Let friends, relatives and neighbors know about the heroic efforts you and your fellow members make every day to prepare our students to reach their goals and be good citizens. Every day, we are entrusted with the lives and minds of tomorrow’s community leaders, and we fully understand and embrace that responsibility.
“To all the Everyday Heroes across the state, always be proud of your work,” Inoue said. “And remember, when a parent fills out a registration or enrollment package, it’s not just a piece of paper, it’s a child’s life we are going to take care of.”
Do you know a CSEA member that goes above and beyond every day to brighten students’ lives? Let us know about them! E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us about that special member and what they do that makes them an Everyday Hero.