This is my favorite time of the year because ’tis the season for giving thanks. Just last week we paused to give thanks to the veterans who have sacrificed to protect this great nation. We have another reason to be grateful to our veterans: together with teachers, they played a pivotal role nearly a century ago in education. Let me explain.
Distressed that 25% of the country’s World War I draftees were illiterate and 9% were physically unfit, NEA and the American Legion met in 1919 in order to generate public support for education. Both organizations subsequently adopted resolutions of support for a national effort to raise public awareness of the importance of education. In 1921, NEA and American Legion joined forces to co-sponsor the first-ever American Education Week. Since then, scores of other organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education, the National PTA and many others, have joined the effort.
This year, NEA’s 94th annual American Education Week takes place Nov. 16-20, and its theme is “Great Public Schools: A Basic Right and Our Responsibility.” This represents NEA’s vision of calling upon all Americans to do their part in making public schools great for every child so that they can grow and achieve in the 21st century. Further, this year’s theme will be reflected in special observances each day of the weeklong celebration: Kickoff Day; Parents Day; Education Support Professionals Day; Educator for a Day; and Substitute Educators Day.
What I love about the history of American Education Week is that it arose from what some may view as an unlikely partnership: educators and veterans. But that’s exactly what made it successful — bringing together different people with the same goal in mind. In education today, that’s exactly what we are doing by bringing together and acknowledging all educators who play a critical role in ensuring student success.
One of our most successful partnerships in education is with our Education Support Professionals or ESPs. ESPs are priceless. Just as we salute our veterans we too should salute our many outstanding support professionals who, in many cases, work behind the scenes to contribute to great public schools and ensure student success for all children, everywhere.
Today, ESPs make up nearly one-third of the total education workforce, and include school and university custodians, security services, food services, clerical, school nurses, transportation, and technical workers as well as paraeducators with 75% of ESPs living in and being active in the same communities in which they work. Of NEA’s nearly 3 million members, there are approximately a half-million members who are ESPs.
ESPs are critical to the success of school districts, families and students. They are champions inside and outside of the classroom; believers in students; advocates for families; leaders for unions; and a powerful force in public education.
Fittingly, American Education Week is always celebrated the week prior to the week of Thanksgiving. This makes it the ideal time to take a minute to thank and recognize the many members of the education team who complete the circle of learning. And while the celebration officially takes place only one week, it serves as a reminder that we must all work together as a community throughout the year to ensure that every student in every zip code has every opportunity to success.
That’s the mission of NEA every week of every year.