Paraeducator: a school employee working under the supervision of teachers or other professional practitioners. Their jobs are instructional in nature and they provide other direct services to children, youth and their families.

As a paraeducator, I love assisting students in their academic learning and character development. I’ve helped them master reading, writing, math, life skills, and, currently, English language. We paraeducators truly make a difference in kids’ lives. Many of us began as classroom volunteers when our own children were in school, but we soon realized we had room in our hearts for many more. To become paraeducators, we had to earn an associate degree, take equivalent college hours or pass a rigorous test.

Our wages should reflect this training and the specialized, concentrated assistance we give to students, but our pay is similar to that of a fast-food worker.

When the #RedforEd walkout began, I was attending the National Resource Center for Paraeducators conference in Seattle. There I learned that several states, such as Washington and Michigan, have instituted certification programs for paraeducators. Support personnel like me have access to paid professional-development courses, and after a certain number of hours, receive a certificate and higher compensation. Endorsements are available for special-education or English-language instruction, or even an advanced certificate that satisfies part of a certified teaching degree.

Wow! I thought. Let’s bring this idea home to Arizona! My colleagues are hungry for professional-development courses. And Arizona has many certified teaching positions unfilled! Why not get our paraeducators on track to becoming certified and filling that void? Or even enhance our work with the most behavior- and learning-challenged students, narrowing the achievement gap. A well-formed certification program would guide a team of administrators, teachers and paraeducators to fully utilize their expertise, all for the benefit of the students.

When I returned from the conference, my enthusiasm evaporated. Some paraeducators had hours or positions cut for various financial reasons. #RedforEd had asked lawmakers for increased funding for classrooms and support staff, at least back to pre-2008 levels, but that didn’t happen. My district regards all support professionals as educators, but our ranks keep dwindling with repeated funding cuts. When people go, duties get doubled up, and safety is at stake. Teachers don’t get the classroom help they need. Staff morale is low. Students lose out.

I’m not giving up on the public schools that served my own children so well. I’m concerned about my granddaughter who will soon be in school, and I care deeply about the students I currently work with. They’re navigating into a future with huge technological, vocational, and societal challenges, and all educators need to keep pace with the changes.

When our schools work well, having all the resources they need, taxpayers will spend less on welfare, rehab and prisons. I’m challenging our lawmakers and fellow Arizonans to question every negative thing they hear on talk shows. Come in, investigate and promote what is working well in our schools. Find the funds to keep and reward effective educators. Provide career growth opportunities for all school staff.

Then you’ll see our children grow into creative, competent and caring adults.

Loretta Martin is an English-language development technician at Walter Douglas Elementary School in the Flowing Wells Unified School District. A paraeducator for 15 years, she was the recipient of the 2017 Arizona Education Association ESPecially for Kids Award.