Axtell teacher takes new approach as ESP

Jennifer Marsh knew she wanted to teach by the time she was in second grade.

"I loved my teacher, Mrs. Bouquet, and I wanted to grow up and be just like her," Marsh said. "When my cousins would get together at my grandparents’ house, I would make them play school."

Marsh taught second grade for 10 years in Kearney and a variety of grades in Axtell, including kindergarten, second, third and K-4 special education.

She subbed in the Axtell district for five years while raising her three children. That eventually turned into a full-time third-grade teaching job. But Marsh noticed a trend: the school had trouble keeping special education teachers. It had four different ones in five years.

"We’ve had good teachers, just young ones who had life opportunities that led them elsewhere," she said. "I wanted our special education students to have more stability, and I was ready for a change, so I volunteered to move to special education."

A new outlook?

The district developed a new framework for reading and math intervention, which increased the number of students visiting Marsh’s special education room. She asked to have a paraeducator work alongside her to help balance the workload, a request administrators thought would be fine.

Marsh lined up two paras who were willing to train with the new framework, but once the school year began, they both were needed elsewhere, leaving Marsh to handle everything on her own. One of those, Marsh’s best friend Shannon Sis, became ill and passed away mid-year.

"I was seeing students from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, often without time for lunch. That left time for paperwork, meetings, lesson planning and preparing outside of school hours," Marsh said. "I found myself sleeping about four hours a night at least six days a week.

The stress I personally took on for each and every one of the students I worked with, as well as losing my best friend and coworker, took a toll on me both physically and mentally."

By January, she’d had enough and asked the district to hire another special education teacher to help ease the load. It had hired two new staff the previous two years, and she was told the school board wouldn’t go for it three years in a row.

Marsh began applying for jobs elsewhere, but they didn’t pan out.

A specialist analyzed the special education program to find ways to increase efficiency. In March, Marsh had two student teachers, which helped.

"I finally started to feel part of the weight being lifted off of me because we had two teachers working together to assist with the planning, preparing and teaching load I had been enduring by myself," Marsh said. "We worked as a powerhouse team."

That’s when she started thinking outside the box.

Making the switch

Marsh asked administrators to hire her as a paraeducator and hire one of the student teachers as the full-time special education teacher upon graduation.

"The trade off for me in losing a significant amount of income would be I could clock in and clock out to provide me with some freedom to get my personal priorities in order," she said.

Though she also would lose her insurance benefits, Marsh and her husband decided the best choice for her health was that she wouldn’t "teach" the next year.

"It was a gut-wrenching decision, but my faith lets me know we will be provided for, and sometimes there is a lot more to life than earning a living," Marsh said.

Her friend, Sis, was another inspiration for the decision.

"She LOVED being a paraeducator, and I always envied her for the connections she made with the students that depended on her to get them through their school day," Marsh said.

Marsh knew it would cost the district less money to hire a new, younger teacher, rather than keep her in the role with 20 years of experience and a master’s degree.

The difference was enough that they could keep Marsh on as a paraeducator. That way, she could still have a hand in bringing the new intervention framework to fruition – or so she hoped. Most of those duties were reassigned to staff on other committees she’s not able to be on as a para.

"That is hard on my ego. It’s kind of like going from a team captain on the varsity team to the waterboy," she said.

Marsh is still passionate about teaching, her students, her colleagues and the Axtell community, and she’s making a difference in other ways.

"When I am working with kids, whether it is morning duty, recess duty, or helping a student with math, reading or friendship problems, and sometimes even giving them a safe place to have a tantrum, I am doing what I was meant to do," Marsh said. "All I have ever wanted to do is teach and serve others. I still get to do that, and for that I am grateful. I am proud to be an ESP!"

Marsh is in her third year as the Axtell Education Association president. Her first year in the role, she led a bylaw change to allow ESPs to join the association. Her goal is to get enough ESP members for them to have bargaining power, too.

"Maybe now that I am an ESP, my voice will have more of an impact," she said. "Our support staff deserves beyond measure more than is currently being offered to them."