By Sheila Caldwell, BSN, RN, CSN-NJ
“Opportunity dances with those already on the dance floor.”
This quote from H. Jackson Brown Jr., the author of Life’s Little Instruction Book, holds great significance for me as I embark on an opportunity that I want to share with you. I was selected by the National Education Association (NEA) as their first specialized instructional support personnel (SISP) Fellow for the 2021-22 school year.
NEA describes SISPs as the staff in a school who work with teachers, educational support professionals, parents, community members, and other education stakeholders to help students remove learning barriers while examining their individual strengths and talents, interests and insecurities. SISPs include school nurses, like me, as well as school counselors, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, library media specialists, speech-language pathologists and others.
Let me step back for a moment to give you a little bit of the background that has led me to have this amazing opportunity. It is the result of a journey for which I have been taking “dance lessons” throughout my life. I will be sharing this latest journey with you in a monthly post on njea.org that, this month, is being introduced in print in the NJEA Review.
You likely had seen or heard me in one of the NJEA Public Service Announcements to encourage members and the public to consider taking the COVID-19 vaccination. My years of nursing have ranged from hospital-based—having various positions that include critical care and case management. Even today, I work for the same system on a per diem basis as a community health educator. I also continue to work per diem in homecare and obviously, full time as a school nurse.
Reflecting on the many “lessons” that have put me on the “dance floor,” I must credit my mother, God rest her soul, who was a true advocate and community spirited person. From wheeling me in a stroller during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, to marching in Trenton for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and John Artis in 1975, to the many other rallies and events concerning civil rights, health and welfare, my mother instilled in me a sense of giving freely—not necessarily in a monetary sense, but in time, talent and skills.
My mother’s influence inspired me to be an active citizen and school nurse who sits on many committees and boards, mostly in the nursing and school nursing arenas. I have also been active with NJEA in behind the scenes capacities to promote the inclusion of school nurses and their role in the educational world. Whether in a segment on “Classroom Close-up NJ” or in an article in the Review, I have had some influence in encouraging school nurses to step outside of their offices to share what they do or are passionate about.
In the spring 2019, I learned of the NJEA Members of Color Network, often known simply as “NJEA MOC.” I knew NJEA MOC was a group that I wanted to be a part of, and I knew I could contribute to it even as I learned more about NJEA through NJEA MOC.
Over the years, I had been sponsored by my local and county associations or by NJEA itself to attend programs such as the NJEA Jack Bertolino Summer Leadership Conference and Ready to Run: Run Sister-Run!” which is presented by Rutgers’ Center for Women and Politics. In addition, although I haven’t held a position in my local association, I have held county association positions as the Monmouth County representative to NJEA Public Relations Committee since 2020 and was the Monmouth County representative for minority concerns to the NEA Representative Assembly. I have also met with NJEA leadership to offer input and expertise on a variety of issues.
In early spring 2020, I had the opportunity to participate in the NEA G-27 Task Force meeting. This meeting included members from NJEA selected to speak about initiatives and issues with NJEA and NEA Leadership. This is where the culmination of my lifetime of “dance lessons and styles” positioned me for consideration for the NEA SISP Fellowship. Fortunately, my moves during this important recital were on-point. I didn’t stagger or fall; and if I did, I was able to get right back up and continue until the end of the last song.
NEA had been considering a SISP Fellowship for a while. Apparently, all the time I have spent learning how to dance in a variety of settings was exactly what NEA was looking for. Shortly after the meeting, NEA contacted me to inquire about my interest in the fellowship and to inform me of the next steps, which included sending my resume and scheduling interviews, etc.
To extend the dance metaphor, I have well understood the importance of not only waltz, but tap, ballet, hip-hop and other dance forms. I understood the need to listen, watch and interject suggestions when it comes to the choreography, to view how the various acts of the entire production should be laid out, and to listen to ideas of others as we develop plans, goals, and solutions. I understand the need for “productions” that entice individuals to join my dance troupe or start one of their own.
The SISP Fellowship is a 10-month program. I am “on loan” from my school district to “utilize my experience and skillset…to improve the health, safety, and well-being students and educators” (quoted language is from my district’s school board minutes). The NEA Division that I will be reporting to and working with, remotely and/or in its D.C. office, or wherever they should send me, is the Education Support Professional Quality (ESPQ) Department. The ESPQ department develops, implements and promotes policies and professional supports that enhance the effectiveness of ESPs in meeting the needs of every student.
I’ve taken a number of “dance lessons,” been on a number of “dance floors” and here in front of me is my “solo recital,” where all of my life’s work has placed me. And this online column is a way for you to also share in my journey as I travel through these experiences in the next 10 months.
I wanted to present this introduction in this metaphorical way to let you know that you can start dancing too. We all know that our union is here for us, but many of us don’t take the time to learn about the opportunities, no matter how small or large, we can learn from or participate in. It is so important for all of us to examine all the levels of opportunities that we have in front of us and to see where we fit in. Whether at the local, county, state or national level, there are so many opportunities available to you. Speak with your local and county association representatives.
When “dance lessons” come your way, put on your dancing shoes and start inching your way to the dance floor. If you are already on the dance floor, look for where the spotlight is shining to seize that moment in the limelight. You never know where the next stage might be that you perform on.
The “dance floor” isn’t closed when it come to your local, county, state and national union. Ask about what interests you or other ways that the members and/or educational impact is needed. Provide some thoughts and potential solutions. Your voice does matter.
For the 2021-22 school year, NEA SISP Fellow Shelia Caldwell will be writing a monthly online column that will be posted at njea.org/sisp. Be sure to check it out at the beginning of each month.
Sheila Caldwell is a certified school nurse in the Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District. She is on leave to participate in the SISP Fellowship described in this article. In addition to receiving numerous national and local awards, Caldwell has received the American Academy of Pediatrics-NJ Chapter School Health Advocate of Year (2016) and the 2021 National Association of School Nurses (NASN) Recognition Award for “continued support and unique contributions to NASN and school nursing.” Caldwell can be reached at SCaldwell@nea.org.