Celebrating ESP Day in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t easy, but a series of free webinars meant that members could network and get active even when schools were closed.
Last year was the first celebration of ESP Day, which replaced the existing ES Week and brought Australia in line with the international community. Held on 6 May, it wasn’t necessarily the best timing. Victorian schools were mid-lockdown as the state struggled to control its COVID-19 outbreak and, well, it was a Saturday. Many schools either postponed or cancelled the usual morning tea.
Of course, ESP Day is more than just a morning tea. In the run up to the big day, the AEU held a number of webinars designed to help ES staff be more aware of their entitlements – often a murky area in schools – and become more active in their sub-branches and workplaces. Taking advantage of our sudden familiarity with Zoom meetings, these webinars allowed ES staff across Victoria to meet in a virtual room – a rare netowrking opportunity!
“Those webinars gave us a lot more confidence to share our knowledge with the other ES staff and encourage those who weren’t already members to join.”
Ana Levett, an ES worker from a specialist school, says it was a chance to hear about issues in other schools and how they handle ES entitlements. “I didn’t have a great knowledge of primary and secondary sectors or budgets and how everything’s so different between schools.
“You just assume that everyone’s doing the same thing. What I liked most was hearing other stories from ES staff in about how they’re treated, or how they’ve brought about change in their schools.”
The experience has encouraged Ana to get more involved in her sub-branch. She’s now the rep and sub-branch president, and making the most of the union’s other virtual offerings. “I’ve attended all the regional meetings, had five training sessions on consultation, and I did the induction training. It was helpful meeting organisers and building relationships with them. There are so many different avenues you can explore.”
The webinars had a similarly transformative effect for ES staff Lyndal Argaet and Heidi Roberts, who both work at the same North Melbourne primary school and went on to complete several AEU online courses.
“We didn’t really have much of a sub-branch at our school beforehand,” Heidi says. “Those webinars gave us a lot more confidence to share our knowledge with the other ES staff and encourage those who weren’t already members to join.”
“I’d say it’s helped teachers gain a better understanding of our role.”
The school’s sub-branch has gone from a one-teacher operation to a thriving and active group with ES staff in the key roles. Lyndal is now sharing presidential duties with a teacher, which felt like a good way to demonstrate that teacher and ES members can – and should – work together in supporting each other’s interests. Too often, ES staff feel their teaching comrades don’t have a clear idea exactly what their jobs entail or what their entitlements are.
“I’d say it’s helped teachers gain a better understanding of our role,” Lyndal says. “It’s not that we weren’t respected, but with that understanding comes an acknowledgment of what we do.”
Sharing info from the webinars has helped bring about real change in a number of schools. Michelle Watson felt emboldened to ask her school about its time in lieu policy for ES staff.
“I could never find it documented anywhere, so I requested that we have a formal policy put in writing to make sure all ES staff were aware of what they could claim. I’m now receiving time in lieu for being on the consultative committee, which I had never been given before. Teachers don’t know a whole lot about how ES are paid and how we earn our holidays and so on.”
“It’s nice to have things explained to you sometimes, rather than just reading it off a piece of paper.”
Ana says that since completing the webinars, she now has the confidence to question decisions around ES roles and entitlements.
“Last week I saw a teacher ask a trainee ES to mark the roll for her. I turned around and said, ‘She can’t do that. That’s not a range one level one role or responsibility. You’ll have to ring the office, because they’re a range two.’”
Michelle says she would encourage other ES staff to join the webinars this year, even if they already consider themselves the full bottle on entitlements.
“It’s nice to have things explained to you sometimes, rather than just reading it off a piece of paper. And ES organiser Kathryn Lewis asked if there were other issues we’d like to see included in future webinars, like the new Schools Agreement.”
For others, including integration aide Virginia Butters, it’s the sense of collegiality and solidarity that makes the webinars so important.
“If 2020 taught me anything it’s that it’s vital for your mental and emotional wellbeing to have a group of like-minded people to chat to.”
Lyndal agrees. “It’s great to hear about all the different ways ES staff work and how we can support each other.”
ESP Day will be celebrated on Sunday 6 May in 2021. A series of AEU webinars and other activities will be run in the week before.