Paraprofessional Annette RuchSometimes in life when we choose a path, we can’t see where it will lead us.

“I can honestly say that my main reason for considering a job as an ESP was that it coordinated well with my children’s schedules,” says Toms River paraprofessional Annette Ruch. “I really had no idea I was starting a career I would come to love, and I never anticipated how involved I would become in the union.”

Eighteen years later, Ruch has both a career and a record of association involvement of which to be proud. That’s why she’s been named the 2013 NJEA Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year.

Why special ed?

For the past eight years, Ruch has collaborated with sixth-grade LLD teacher Laurie Weed at Toms River Intermediate School-South. Weed couldn’t be happier for her classroom partner. “She’s like my right hand. The kids need her and I need her,” notes Weed, who has spent her entire 16-year teaching career in Toms River. But Ruch’s depth and breadth of experience goes far beyond this self-contained classroom. She has worked with intermediate autistic students at all levels of the spectrum. When she first joined the Toms River staff, Ruch was assigned to the district’s alternate school that served both intermediate and high school students.

Every summer Ruch works with elementary students in a six-week program for youngsters with autism. Before she was hired by the school district, she even experienced a preschool handicapped program. “I think I was drawn to working in special education because of my youngest brother,” Ruch explains. “Growing up with him, I learned firsthand the vital necessity our special education teachers and paraprofessionals play in the lives of their students. These professionals give of themselves tirelessly everyday to ensure that their students have the opportunity to be the best they can be.”

Throughout her career, Ruch has witnessed the changes in strategies employed in special ed classrooms, and because of this, she works hard to stay abreast of new techniques. She has a thick portfolio of attendance certificates from various professional development experiences, including workshops offered at the NJEA Convention. She has been trained in Read 180, a computer-based program. In fact, Ruch learned about Read 180 before Weed, whom she trained after Weed’s return from maternity leave.

Ruch has also attended bullying prevention workshops to assist with her work as the co-advisor of the Leaders Club, a peer mediation group at the school. Not only does she coordinate after-school trainings for the students, Ruch is responsible for the actual mediations that are held during the school day.

Beyond the classroom

About 10 years ago, Ruch started to get involved with her local association. Now she’s an invaluable member of the Toms River Education Association (TREA) who contributes on the county and state levels as well.

“One of the teachers in our wing who was very involved in the union mentioned that she felt our ESPs  were not being well-represented,” Ruch recalls. “Then she said she thought I would be perfect for the job!”

Like most members, she started as a building association rep, but before long she was serving her colleagues in several official capacities and countless unofficial ones. Ruch credits her further union involvement to Toms River Education Association President Kathy Eagan, who now also serves as president of the Ocean County Council of Education Associations (OCCEA).

“Not only did she constantly encourage me to run for our local executive board but also our county executive board,” Ruch says of Eagan. “She has consistently treated me not just as an ESP but an equal, and I thank her for that.”

Ruch has been a member of the Constitution Committee, the Salary Guide Committee, and the Scholarship Committee. She has also taken leadership roles, having been the ESP Liaison and Election Committee chairperson.

Soon Ruch’s dedication took her to the county level, where she has been a member of the OCCEA Executive Committee for seven years. She has also served as County Election Committee chairperson and has been an active member of OCCEA’s Legislative Action Team. In that capacity she has met with elected officials as she advocates for New Jersey’s public schools.

“Sometimes I worry that she does too much,” says Eagan, noting Ruch’s willingness to lend a hand. “But,” she added, “we’ve all learned from her steady and passionate way of helping others.”

Ruch’s steadfast advocacy also brings her to Trenton on occasion. During the fight against harmful pensions and benefits legislation that was proposed in spring 2011, Ruch attended all but one of NJEA’s rallies. She has served as an alternate to NJEA’s Delegate Assembly and is the first ESP member in recent memory to be on the Association’s Editorial Committee, which oversees the NJEA Review, NJEA Reporter, and

One reason that Ruch is so well-informed is because of her attendance at the last seven NEA Representative Assemblies. Last year, she also attended  NEA’s Women’s Leadership Conference and its Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women.

Into the community

Ruch’s work as a paraprofessional, club advisor and association advocate has brought her into the community in a big way. Because she worked with a teacher who was the local coordinator for the Special Olympics for Monmouth and Ocean counties, Ruch has volunteered for this event for 18 years, arranging the parade of athletes and organizing medical assistance.

When her Leaders Club decided to participate in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, Ruch became a team captain, a volunteer position she has held for seven years.

And then there’s the coveted position as co-manager of the High School Concession Stand! Because TREA operates the stand to benefit the association’s scholarship fund, she proudly cooks hot dogs and coordinates volunteers. Each year, TREA awards up to 45 scholarships of at least $750 to deserving high school seniors.

During the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Ruch experienced the true meaning of a union. Several ESP members had been displaced by the hurricane, so TREA quickly organized “Adopt a Bus Driver/Aide.”

“When the call came out I was immediately on board and Laurie [Weed] was right there with me,” says Ruch. “We collected monetary donations, gift cards, clothes, etc. to help one of the displaced families get back on their feet. This is just one example of why I am so proud to be a member of my association.”

Ruch recognizes that being a union member means working on behalf of all of her colleagues. That’s why she recently wrote a letter to the State Board of Education regarding teacher evaluation. And as UniServ Representative Mary Novotny notes, Ruch’s post-Sandy efforts weren’t just about fellow ESPs, as she pitched in to help students, parents, teachers and community members.

“She was with us from the start as we collected food, sorted and folded clothing that had been donated, packed backpacks and buckets of supplies for teachers, and more. Annette is truly an extraordinary person,” says Novotny.

What’s next?

“Every Sunday my husband asks, ‘So, what night will you be home for dinner this week?’” says Ruch.

For her, maintaining this level of association involvement means quite a few nights out of the house. But her husband Steve respects Ruch’s commitment to her students and her colleagues. The couple just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary last June. To celebrate, they took their entire family to Disney World for a week and even renewed their vows.

As the 2013 NJEA ESP of the Year, Ruch will also be spending a few weekends out of the house. She was the guest of honor at the NJEA ESP Conference in February. This month she will be traveling to Louisville, Kentucky, for the NEA ESP Conference.

“It’s all a bit overwhelming,” Ruch notes. “I’m not used to being the center of attention.”

Over the next year, Ruch hopes to direct some of that attention to the great work that her fellow ESPs are doing in schools around the state. She also plans to encourage them to get more involved in their union.

“I am fortunate to have grown as a professional and as a community member through my experiences at all levels of our association,” Ruch believes.” There are so many opportunities available to us, but we must walk through those doors to truly benefit from them. It will be an honor to share this message.”

Of course, anyone who knows Annette Ruch understands, the honor will be all ours.