By Kathryn Coulibaly
The Livingston Education Association (LEA) has become the second association in the state to launch an educational support professional (ESP) mentor program, thanks to the hard work and advocacy of its members.
The teaching assistants in Livingston have had a rough road. Fourteen years ago, Lisa Bonvini, Beth Waldron and Cathy Lindsey were full-time employees with benefits. Two years later, the teaching assistants were outsourced, and they all lost their benefits. When the board brought them back, it was on a part-time basis at 28.75 hours and without benefits.
This change affected only the teaching assistants, and it spurred many of them to become more involved in their local association.
“We all became building representatives,” Waldron recalled. “We began going to meetings and got more and more involved in the union. We wanted to make sure that the voices of our teaching assistants continued to be heard in our union and in our executive board meetings.”
“Then, about six years ago, I got on the negotiations team,” Bonvini said. “My goal was to get our benefits back.”
During their last round of bargaining, the teaching assistants got single benefit coverage for teaching assistants, but no family coverage. They also were restored to full-time status and were able to eliminate a horrible practice where every teaching assistant would get a reduction-in-force (RIF) letter every May. They would not know until June if they would be hired for the next school year.
Thanks to these wins at the bargaining table, Livingston won the 2021 NJEA Jim George Collective Bargaining Award, but Bonvini, Waldron, and Lindsey weren’t done. They felt strongly that the damage that had been done to the teaching assistants’ morale could not be undone at the bargaining table.
Bonvini was on Facebook during last Memorial Day Weekend, a rainy one, and saw a post about the ESP mentoring program offered by NEA.
“I thought it was a great idea; there’s nothing worse than seeing a teaching assistant come in and be thrown into a classroom. You don’t know where to park, when to sign in, how lunches work,” Bonvini said. “I knew that Beth and Cathy would jump on this idea, so we decided to apply.”
Livingston’s application to NEA was approved and LEA President Anthony Rosamilia recommended working with Lisa Steiger, the assistant superintendent, on the mentoring program.
“Having Lisa Steiger work on this with us was very beneficial,” Bonvini said. “We knew what administration would support, and we could work with that. Beth, Cathy, and I met with Lisa over the summer, as well as our NEA liaison, and our in-state mentor, Olive Giles, who is the vice president of the Princeton Regional Educational Support Staff Association. Olive started the state’s first ESP mentor program in Princeton, and we have benefited so much from her experience.”
The team worked all summer, primarily via Zoom, to learn all they could from NEA and Giles and to create the program and materials. Waldron, Lindsey, Bonvini, and Steiger spent countless hours developing a program that would meet the unique needs of Livingston’s teaching assistants.
“We had our hair up in scrunchies sitting around a table working on this all summer long,” Bonvini remembered.
Mentors are leaders and ambassadors
Their hard work and hair neglect paid off. By the end of the summer, they were ready. The program began with the 2021-22 school year. The team brought the mentors in and trained them. They went over the things they learned from NEA and compiled a folder for each mentor on the topics they should make sure to cover. Each month, the mentors meet with their mentee for at least an hour and log it, but they are available any time to their mentees.
Some of the topics they make sure are covered at the beginning are the teaching assistant job description, the teaching assistant handbook, the culture in the building, and the importance of confidentiality. They stress to the mentors that they are leaders and ambassadors; they are not evaluating mentees. They also go over the ethics and professional boundaries about dealing with students, parents and staff. The topics range from practical to those that are vital, but unique to the school environment. For example, in October, they talk about how to sign up for benefits and the protocol for Halloween.
Each month, the board announces new hires. Bonvini monitors the list, and if there are new teaching assistants she lets the mentors know to reach out.
Currently, there are 11 mentors—one for each building and two at the high school. One elementary school has an applied behavior analysis (ABA) program. At that school there is one mentor for the mainstream program teaching assistant and one for the ABA teaching assistant, because the needs and protocols may be different. In total, there are about 45 mentees.
Elevating the work of ESPs
The impact of the mentoring program is already being felt in Livingston, not just among the teaching assistants, but across the school community.
“It’s important to help teaching assistants feel comfortable, engaged, and a valued part of our school community,” Lindsey said. “That’s good for the students, the teachers, and the rest of the staff.”
“Here in Livingston, we really see the power of mentoring and the potential it has to help people succeed and stay in the profession, so we wanted to extend that to teaching assistants who work hand-in-hand with teachers,” LEA President Anthony Rosamilia said. “Every chance we get, we want to elevate the work that ESP members do, but our teaching assistants specifically need to be in the spotlight. We’re really happy that administration saw the value in this program and that the assistant superintendent participated over the summer to collaborate on the mentoring program.”
“NEA was impressed at the relationship we have with administration,” Bonvini said. “It meant a lot to have Lisa Steiger working around the table with us; not all districts have that.”
Bonvini, Waldron, and Lindsey are hopeful for the future of the program.
“Our team is going to meet midyear and again at the end of the year to evaluate what we believe is working and what we would like to change,” Bonvini said. “We’re funded through NEA this year, but we’re going to have to work to find funding in the future. I hope people see the value in this. Our goal is to get our program firmly established so that we can go out there like Olive and help other districts start ESP mentor programs across the state. Every district in NJ should have an ESP mentor program!”
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.