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For ten years, I had the privilege to have a choice to take off work and stay home to help raise my three children.

During those years, I was active in their elementary school… volunteering to pop popcorn, help with school events, and serve on the school’s parent advisory committee.

When I went back to work, I was nervous. I knew I wouldn’t be around as much, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to casually check in and see how the kids were doing. So, I reached out to the person I knew best at the school… the daytime custodian, Darlene. Darlene and I had cleaned up together after a couple of events and forged a friendship over spider plant cuttings. 

I’ll never forget what I said to her: 

Me: “Darlene, you gotta keep an eye on my kids.”
Darlene: “I will. Especially Benjamin. You’ve got your hands full with that one.”

Her response caught me off guard, but she was right. That’s because Darlene knew Benjamin even better than many of his teachers.  She saw Benjamin outside of the classroom, in more informal settings, running late in the hallway, cutting up in the lunchroom, and playing by himself at recess. Darlene knew that Benjamin needed just a bit of extra attention and that extra set of eyes.

Educational Support Professionals, or ESPs, like Darlene play an essential role in the day-to-day work of schools. ESPs are the nurses, food service employees, custodians, paraeducators, bus drivers, secretaries, and security staff, who work to keep kids safe, fed, and ready to learn.

All of these things are critically important. Yet, we often tend to overlook another important function of ESPs: the unique role they play in welcoming, building trust and engaging families.

Here are four reasons why you should focus on supporting your front-line support staff —

ESPs are often the first members of the school staff that parents meet.
The secretary who helps with enrollment, the bus driver who contacts parents with the location of the bus stop, the nurse calling for vaccination forms. Each of these interactions form the first impressions families have of your school or district. When ESPs are welcoming and respectful, it sets the tone for a family’s entire school experience.

ESPs often interact more with parents.
ESPs are the ones who see your parents the most… in the pick-up line, in the lunchroom, walking down the hallway. This creates more opportunities to get to know those parents and each one of these opportunities helps build strong relationships. Those relationships help parents feel a part of the school and that can help with engagement.

ESPs are often more approachable.
Conversations with teachers and principals can be intimidating for parents. Think about a conference at a big table or a formal meeting in front of a desk. Parents often view teachers and principals as authority figures. On the other hand, interactions between ESPs and parents tend to be more casual and friendly. It’s easier for ESPs to get to know families and easier for families to get comfortable enough to share information with ESPs. 

And that brings me to my final point…

ESPs can serve as powerful communication highways.
ESPs know the families in your school. They know their struggles, their successes, and their worries. ESPs can help you better understand what’s going on in the lives of your families and work with you if you need to wrap supports around students. ESPs also know how your school works. They know your acronyms, your big words, and your processes. They can answer questions and welcome families into the learning in an approachable, non-judgement way. Above all, ESPs have the relationships to help your staff and parents understand each other and that’s where meaningful family engagement happens.

These days, my son Benjamin is in college and doing quite well. Truthfully, I have trouble remembering all of Benjamin’s teachers, but I will never forget Darlene. For me, Darlene was more than an educational support professional, she was my support professional. It may not have been part of her “official ESP job description,” but knowing she was there, in the building, every day…keeping an eye on things…made all the difference for this nervous mommy.

If you’re an ESP, or you’re looking for ways to empower your ESPs and improve family engagement this year, don’t miss my sessions at the NEA ESP Conference March 19-21. For more ideas about how to build trust with and engage families, visit my website and download my free Playbook for Clear, Effective & Meaningful School Communication.

Patricia Weinzapfel

Author, Educator, Journalist & K12 Communications Expert


  • tony dalton says:

    ESP s are really important people in the life of schools and in children’s learning however I have real difficulty with the concept of placing them at the centre of family Engagement in Learning. In my thoughts unless teachers hold this domain/position our efforts will be less impacting.Engaging families in their children’s learning is the work of teachers and is entrenched in our teacher competencies here in Australia, yes there are other important roles such as ESPs , front of house, principals,gardeners,cleaners etc
    Teachers need to be approachable (and usually are), they need to be the first to meet families and a source of constant interaction and communication (door stops, apps, newsletters,phone calls home etc)
    There are many strategies to alleviate the authority figure and intimidation fears, number one amongst them all is Relationship.Conferences at big tables or in front of desk are “old hat and yesterday’s heroes”
    Being effective engagers of families in their children’s learning means we (teachers schools) have to let go of old practices and traditions.
    “If you keep doing the same old things we will get the same old results”

    • Mr. Dalton, Thank you so much for commenting on my post. This is the first feedback I’ve ever received! I so appreciate you taking the time to write and your thoughtful comments. It’s so great that family engagement is part of the teacher competencies in Australia. That’s not the case in many school districts here. I wish it was because you are so right, and I agree, the ultimate responsibility does rest with teachers. Family engagement can be so challenging, I think schools need to play to all their assets…and ESPs are one those assets. No doubt we could stand to learn a thing or two from the work in your country. We sure learned through Covid that family engagement in education isn’t just “nice,” it’s absolutely necessary! Patricia

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