The Whole Education Family Serves the Whole Student

When I took office, the headlines all over the country read: Former Lunch Lady elected President of NEA.

And it’s true! I am so proud of that. (Although “lunch lady” is padding my resume. I was the Salad Girl – not quite up to hot food.) But I was a great Lunch Lady. And after that, I was a teacher’s assistant in a Head Start preschool.

I wanted to become a teacher, so I took out student loans, worked weekends and got my degree. But my colleagues who loved being in the kitchen and being teachers’ assistants, they kept doing what they loved doing. We all knew that what we were doing was important to that child.

I want to send a special message to our education support professionals out there. We need you. I’ve taught in schools that had a school nurse and a bilingual assistant and a school secretary and bus drivers and the custodian and the principal and the school psychologist. It was always best for our kids when we had the Whole Team serving the Whole Child.

I am so proud that the newspapers got it right and described me by the title I had in my first education job: I was a humble… and incredibly fantastic Lunch Lady! And I am so proud of being NEA president – all 3 million of us serving the Whole Student.

At NEA we advocate for the learning conditions of our students. I’ve been all over this country, and I hear from classroom teachers, para-professionals, custodians, college professors – I hear from everyone how crazy it’s gotten in our schools under No Child Left Untested. I hear it from our support professionals who work with our most vulnerable students. I’ve had bilingual teacher assistants beg for testing relief for their kids. They sense their frustration at being made to take tests that are inappropriate for their level of English.

I heard a high school custodian tell me how his high school sweepers who work after school want to drop out because of testing pressure. Special Education paras tell me students cry and sometimes act out because of tests that weren’t designed for their special need. We’re all tired of our students and our schools and educators being labeled by some standardized test that measures so little of what goes on to serve the whole Child.

Just let me say that for 13 years now, we’ve been moving away from the original purpose of the federal role in education. The original law had a boring name: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). President Lyndon Johnson signed it in 1965 as part of the Civil Rights Movement. He could see that as schools were ordered to desegregate, some children were getting short-changed by their state and local politicians.

They weren’t getting what they needed to succeed, so the original ESEA gave some modest but important federal money to high poverty schools for teacher training, and reading tutors and bilingual assistants, and help for students with special needs.

Every ten years ESEA is reauthorized, and Congress is supposed to try to get closer to the original purpose – to help vulnerable populations of children who face discrimination and poverty and who have special needs.

When it was authorized in 2002, they changed the name to No Child Left Untested, and instead of moving us forward, we moved backward and turned public schools into testing factories. Now, it’s before Congress to be reauthorized. They have a chance to change it to make it make sense for students again.

But. We know what happens when you leave Congress without adult supervision. Congress is about to make some big decisions about the future of public schools – and that always turns out just peachy.

The reason we got into this mess in the first place is that Congress – neither Democrats nor Republicans – listened to us. Not one of them asked advice from someone who works in a school and knows the names of the students.


Our students are counting on us. Education support professionals have always been on the side of kids. Teachers have always been on the side of kids. The voice of the educator who knows the names of those kids is needed. We won’t let them down.

One Response to “The Whole Education Family Serves the Whole Student”

  1. Bev Douwstra

    Great resume and message. I will text right now!


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