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Diane Barnum is MTA ESP of the Year

Diane Barnum, an education support professional working at the Framingham B.L.O.C.K.S preschool and a member of the Framingham Teachers Association, is this year's winner of the MTA ESP of the Year Award.

Barnum, who is an assistant teacher in an inclusion classroom at the Building Learning Opportunities for Children's Kindergarten Success Pre-School, was singled out for her "supportive, kind, caring manner" by the MTA ESP Committee, which reviews submissions for the award. The award was announced on April 6 at MTA ESP Conference in Falmouth.

Millie Ficarra, co-chair of the MTA ESP Committee, said all the nominees this year are "creative, innovative thinkers who make a difference to their schools and communities," but she said Barnum exemplifies all the qualities of the ideal education support professional – "leading by example, advocating for others, promoting public education and modeling for others the importance of continued professional growth."

Ficarra said Barnum is often "sought out by students, parents and colleagues for the so-called "soft" leadership skills of nurturing, listening and approachability. She is "one of the first ones to arrive at union meetings" and "one of the last to leave," her local president says, and she is a "leader with excellent communication and organizational skills."

Barnum said she was thrilled with the award and described her path to union activism.

She started as an involved parent, then a fund-raiser for her children's school. Then she became secretary of the PTO, which provided "a great chance for me to get involved." Eventually, she began helping out in special education classes, which led to her job as an aide. She became a building representative 15 years ago, and then part of the negotiating team. Barnum is now negotiating her local's fourth contract, who added that she "learned so much in the process." She said she was thrilled to work as a phone banker for Elizabeth Warren's Senate race, and recently lobbied at the state Legislature for the Act to Invest in Our Communities, a bill aimed at increasing revenues to invest in public education, transportation and other important public services.

Matt Malone, Massachusetts secretary of education, and Roxanne Dove, director of the ESP Quality Department at the National Education Association, were honored guests at the conference.

Malone brought conferees to their feet during a heartfelt address Friday in which he praised the work of ESPs, whose impact on children, he said, "doesn't go away" as those children get older. 

Malone, who grew up with dyslexia, said he's proud to be the first secretary of education in Massachusetts to be a combat veteran and a graduate of a vocational high school. But what drives him "every day, every single day, is the fact that I'm the first secretary of education to be educated in a classroom in the back of the building with a specialist and a paraprofessional, because of a learning disability. That is me." He told the ESPs to "not give up on that kid" who might seem to be struggling in the classroom. "He might just be the next secretary of education."

Malone exhorted the crowd to call on their legislators to voice support for education funding. He acknowledged his frustration with the proposed 2014 House budget released this week, which "includes not one added dollar for education," despite the fact that when he travels across the state to make the case for early education and other initiatives, "people get it. This is our opportunity to do for our children and grandchildren what was done for us," he said, pointing to past strong support that has driven student achievement in Massachusetts "to the top of the charts.''

Roxanne Dove of the NEA started by asking the audience how many in the room were educators. Hands went up tentatively. She urged the crowd to show their pride in their work and "always" think of themselves as crucial to the educational process. "Get curious, not furious," she told the group when they encounter unfairness in the workplace, and advocate for themselves to be included in all decisions that affect children.

The conference, held this year at the Sea Crest Beach Hotel on Cape Cod, attracted 300 participants, with 23 workshops that ranged from retirement and workplace bullying to one titled “Taking Care of the Caretaker.”  The conference, which has already outgrown two other facilities, gives ESPs their own stage on which to discuss some of the most important issues in education, as well as providing them with time to network, laugh and connect with colleagues during an early spring weekend.

Friday afternoon workshops included “Collective Bargaining Issues Affecting Paraprofessionals in Special Ed Settings,” “How to Run an Effective Meeting,” “Organizing for Respect and Power” and “ESP Retirement: What You Should Know.” Another workshop,  “Reporting Live from the ESP Conference in Falmouth,” invited members to contribute their conference photos to MTA's Facebook page and Twitter stream and discussed the importance of social media in engaging fellow educators, union members and the community at large on issues of importance to ESPs.

Saturday morning workshops included “Working with Neurobehavioral Disorders” such as Asperger’s syndrome and autism, “Workplace Bullying” and “Moving Off of Stuck—Building a Strong Local.” Another popular offering, “Don’t Trip over Your Cape,” took in the myriad competencies expected in today’s workplace. Other sessions include “Today a Peacock ... Tomorrow a Feather Duster” and “What Would You Do? What Should You Do?,” a session that explores the gray areas for support professionals, including common-sense responses to traumatic and frightening situations.