Take hundreds of NYSUT School-Related Professionals filled with union solidarity, great generosity and a strong desire to improve working and learning conditions, and after a three-day conference they'll end up with an increased commitment to take charge of their work lives and the stronger skills they'll need to do it.
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"This was just what I needed," said Charlene Barry of the Plattsburgh Teachers Association. Barry learned specific ways to encourage students in her classroom to move around to increase learning and decrease disruptions in one of dozens of workshops offered at the 31st annual SRP Leadership Conference.
Whether it's a yoga pose that only takes a few seconds or a brainstorming activity that takes several minutes, Barry learned ways to help students read, write and think better.
The integral role School-Related Professionals play in education needs to be highlighted, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi told participants.
"If we don't take charge of our professions, there are those who want to take away the recognition we deserve," he said. "We will continue our work so every union member has a seat at the table when important decisions are being made."
In a recent conversation with federal education leaders about the important role SRPs play, Iannuzzi said he focused on "how many professions work together to close the achievement gap."
Examples include food service workers who are providing more nutritious and cost-effective meals so children can learn without the burden of hunger, and custodial workers, whose "green" efforts make schools healthier places to learn and to work. He urged SRP leaders to "define excellence" in the work they do.
"I am completely confident you will use this opportunity and seize the day," he said.
Laura King Montgomery, president of the National Education Assocation's National Council of Education Support Professionals, honored the strength of NYSUT's national role as a voice for SRPs.
NEA is one of NYSUT's two national affiliates, along with the American Federation of Teachers. Together the unions represent hundreds of thousands of school support staff across the country. Montgomery saluted NYSUT for its strong advocacy for school workers nationally and for holding conferences where SRPs can share experiences and become better union and education leaders.
Book drive successful
Every year SRP conference participants contribute books to a school district. Sandra Cooper, superintendent of the Sidney central school district in Delaware County, was overcome by the donation of 355 books for the Southern Tier community, which suffered tremendous damage in 2006 flooding.
"You go above and beyond. You keep buildings and offices clean, you keep kids fed, you transport them safely to school and you build connections with them every day," Cooper said. "You are really the unsung heroes in our schools and for this you are now huge heroes to me."
A lifelong educator, Cooper praised the role of SRPs in the schools, specifically the Sidney SRP local, led by Andy Searles.
In addition, conference participants donated $2,200 to NYSUT's Disaster Relief Fund and a huge supply of toiletries to a family shelter.
Two dozen conference workshops offered up-to-date information about issues ranging from cyberbullying to workers' compensation.
Statewide, SRP members are on the front lines in efforts to save the planet. David Megivern of the Ithaca Schools Employee Association, led by Lawrence Creighton, spoke about his school's building-wide effort to recycle as much as possible, in addition to having solar panels on the roof and a constant supply of materials to compost, because these activities contribute to student learning.
"We develop a culture where the students want to do the right thing," he said. For example, "We compost from the cafeteria, use that in the garden where we grow garlic and basil and then all of that is incorporated into the science curriculum."
Building a stronger union voice on the job was another facet of the conference at several workshops on representing members.
"It was helpful to learn how other locals function, how they conduct the relationship between administration and staff," said Linda Patton of the Buffalo Educational Support Team. BEST, led by Ellis Woods, is participating in NYSUT's Local Action Project, which helps locals meet goals in building influence and strengthening community ties. At a conference like this, "it's the learning that matters," said Claire Alston, of BEST. "You learn so many different things from other locals that help when you return home."