Secretarial, Clerical and Administrative Services; Office Assistants, Bookkeeper, Accounting and Financial Assistants; Statistics, Payroll, General Office Assistants; Registration and Records Attendants; Telephone Operators; Nonmanagerial Supervisors
“I was everywhere and into everything, kind of like a ‘Chief Information Officer’ at a big corporation.” – Karen Mahurin, Former school secretary in Alaska and Oregon, former President of National Council for ESP
Karen Mahurin, President of NEA’s National Council for Education Support Professionals, served as a school secretary in Alaska for 22 years before moving south to Oregon.
In those 22 years, she saw first hand how America’s changing society has impacted public schools. “As a school secretary, I saw more and more students and families with financial and emotional challenges, as well as special circumstances,” she says. “They needed extra attention and as a secretary and someone they knew and trusted, I was there to give it.”
In the last two decades, the workload for school secretaries and other clerical staff has increased dramatically. Some of the factors include an increase in student mobility, the growing documentation needed to keep track of special education students, a surge in children who require verification of school enrollment in order to receive public assistance, and the current nursing shortage.
“I originally joined the Association for the liability insurance,” Mahurin admits, “because nine days out of ten, I was the one giving students their daily medications for asthma, Attention Deficit Disorder, and more.”
Because public schools mirror their communities, new issues are arising yearly for public school staff and especially clerical services professionals.
For example, the increasing numbers of foreign-born students are bringing new language challenges into the schools. Secretaries must gather and maintain information for all students, including those who are not native English speakers.
Increased standardized testing for students has also created a whole new area of recordkeeping and information gathering for secretaries and other clerical workers.
Another big challenge is the growing number of students who are also parents. Clerical services members are often very involved with student parents — arranging appropriate school schedules, setting up appointments with medical personnel, and sometimes even making arrangements for babysitters.
Myth #1: “Secretaries sit in the central office all day and do busy work.”
Karen laughs at the thought of sitting in an office all day but says she knows it is a common misperception about the role of clerical staff.
“I was everywhere and into everything, kind of like a ‘Chief Information Officer’ at a big corporation,” she explains. “I was the absolute front line of public relations with parents and the community, yet still had to balance the mountain of paperwork the school had to process.”
She refers to a famous quote by Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under former President Bill Clinton. “He once said that anyone who has been in the military, and in the Navy in particular, understands the meaning of the expression: ‘The chief runs the navy,'” she explains. “Reich said, ‘As it is in the Navy, so it is in a public school district. The secretaries keep the school running.'”
Saundra Roberson, secretary to the principal at Booker T. Washington High School in Shreveport, Louisiana, agrees.
“I produce programs and brochures for all school functions and various departments, fulfill material and supply requests from teachers, train students and staff on software programs, and help coordinate reproduction of school publications,” she says. “I also organize homecoming and all of our football activities.”
Myth #2: “Computers have made it easy for clerical workers.”
While an outsider might think computers have made jobs easier for clerical workers by decreasing paperwork, the computer age has actually increased information collection and storage. The many gaps in training with new computers and software also make it difficult for clerical services personnel to meet their ever-changing job requirements. “We are required to work smarter with all this technology, but since many districts don’t invest in our professional development needs to teach us how to work smarter, we go out and learn it ourselves.”
Like Mahurin, Louisiana’s Saundra Roberson paid for her own professional development — earning a computer training and certificate from a reputable consulting company. She then used the knowledge to lead workshops and teach school staff how to use software programs — such as Microsoft Word — more effectively and efficiently.
Karen says most clerical ESP members she talks with have indeed paid for training out of their own pockets.
“I’ve ‘trained myself,’ or ‘I’ve learned on the job’ are big phrases among clerical staff,” she says. “I also know of numerous clerical services employees who have devised their own training programs based on immediate need and then instituted these programs within their own circle of co-workers, completely independent of any supervisor assistance or even knowledge.”
Ohio’s Debbie Szalkowski, secretary for Special Pupil Services at Maple Heights City Schools, is one of them. When her colleagues expressed an interest in getting help to manage extra tasks, she applied for a grant from National Foundation for the Improvement in Education (NFIE) to study strategies for project and time management, and then held district-wide training sessions to share the techniques.
Christine Koyish, a Secretary in Michigan’s Ionia High School’s Guidance Department, attended a series of technology seminars to become an “expert” in the school’s software. With the help of her colleagues, Koyish then wrote a manual for employees and began hosting workshops for teachers and student staff aides.
“Computer training, time management training, communications training… we would benefit from all of it,” Mahurin adds.
Myth #3: “Secretaries have little impact on student achievement.”
“Because so many of us live in the districts we work in, we care deeply about our students — as if they were our own kids,” explains Oregon’s Mahurin.
Ohio’s Debbie Szalkowski agrees. When she noticed that many Maple Heights students were going straight from high school to the workforce, she started freely passing on her prioritizing strategies to them. “I’m touching students in a meaningful way,” she says. “ESP staff has a really important role to play in supporting student achievement.” When Louisiana’s Saundra Roberson realized not many students had access to a home computer, sheMYTH #3 began working with them after school with research on the computer for reports and other assignments on her own time.
Colorado’s Joann Falk, a Human Resources Secretary for Pueblo School District 70, helped design a new program for substitute teachers, start a beautification project for several of the district’s schools and create an elementary school media center all in addition to her “daily” roles.
Says this NEA 2002 Support Professional of the Year: “We must work as teams to improve education for all of our students, no matter what we do for a living.”
Pennsylvania school secretary Darryl Rowland helped chart a “change of course” at Abington Junior High School when in the late 1990s, she wrote for and received a grant from NEA’s National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE).
Her idea? To bring together several groups of school stakeholders — including members from the Abington Secretaries/Aides Association and Abington Education Association, along with district leaders and Parent Teacher Organization members — to build community understanding and support for the use of high-end technologies.
Proposed by support professionals, the team worked to implement a computer training and mentoring program that was eventually adopted by the entire school district.
“We believe that all school employees have a role in supporting student learning by modeling the successful use of technology,” says Sheila Shapiro, coordinator of curriculum and instruction at Abington Junior High School.
“When I first heard that we were all going to get training on computers,” remembers Dolores Hannum, a secretary at the junior high, “I was very excited because it was a wonderful opportunity to have classes available that would help us better ourselves and help us do our jobs better.”
Dolores, along with secretaries Josephine Haviland and Bonnie Kash, wrote a training manual codifying the word processing and database management activities for which support staff is responsible, while teacher Bob Heine and computer lab aide Megan Maule organized a team of student technology coaches who, in the first three months alone, provided 62 hours of assistance to Abington staff.
“Not only was our computer training worthwhile and fun, but we felt that everyone was made more of a team,” says Josephine. “Support staff was looked at as equals and as a valuable part of the district.”
Teacher Janine Sack agrees: “There was no line between teachers and support staff when it came to technology,” she says. “We were all learning together, as colleagues, and we had never done that before.”
For more about NFIE: http://www.nfie.org/