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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 30, 2009

Profiles of three polite union leaders: ‘We want people to know how valuable we are’

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The women leading the teaching assistants for Guilderland are not aggressive union leaders.

“We’re polite because we don’t want to anger people,” said the president of the unit, Pauline Myers.

“The fact that we’re women has helped keep our salaries down,” said secretary Elma Sprague. “The district looks at us as — ” she completes her sentence with a word she worries the district may find offensive and asks The Enterprise not to report it.

Vice President Cheryl Ainspan finishes the sentence for her with another term: “— Second-income earners. You can’t live on our salary.”

“We have been polite,” says Sprague. “We’ve accepted it long enough.”

“We want people to know how valuable we are,” said Myers.

The TAs would like to make a presentation to the school board.

One of the things they want to make the board aware of, said Ainspan, is that half of them have a four-year or higher degree. She, herself, has a master’s degree.

Another is the TAs’ commitment to the district. “Seventy of us have been in the job four years or more,” said Ainspan. “We stay.”

“I guess we’re afraid of losing our jobs,” says Myers of the reason the TAs were quiet for so long. “We like what we do.”

A recent fact finder’s report, which found the Guilderland TA salaries low compared to comparable districts and to other units in Guilderland, said: “During the fact-finding hearing, the district commented on Unit salaries being set through a regular collective bargaining process. One of the TAs who participated in organizing the Unit responded that ‘from day one we were told this is why you’re getting, and that’s it,’ and they’ve accepted it since 1993.”

“Except for the salary, it’s a good place to work,” said Sprague this week.

She has worked as a Guilderland TA for 22 years. Certified to teach at the elementary level, she was home, raising three children when, in 1987, the principal of the newly re-opened Guilderland Elementary School asked for her help.

“The principal asked if I wanted to get my foot back in the door. I thought that was perfect,” she said. “I really liked what I was doing. I liked the hours,” she said, because they matched her kids’ schedules. “I felt like I was accomplishing a lot.”

Pauline Myers is the mother of four children and has an associate’s degree in early childhood education; she had worked for 15 years in that field.

“Many of us started as parents,” she said. “It fit into our lifestyle.”

Myers began work at Farnsworth Middle School in February of 1992 as an aid/monitor, then in September of that year she moved to Lynnwood Elementary as a teaching assistant.

She started in the skills program, a self-contained classroom with a teacher and a TA.

She now works in the learning workshop at Lynnwood, re-teaching classroom lessons and helping with projects.

Cheryl Ainspan will be starting her ninth year as a teaching assistant. She, too, is a mother; she has three children. She also has a master’s degree in business administration and had a successful career before she decided to stay home after each of her children was born prematurely.

“I started volunteering and realized there were TAs getting paid for some of the things I was doing,” she said. “It was a good fit with hours and vacations.”

Ainspan has worked at the high school for eight years in the learning workshop, helping students with “a variety of labels,” ranging from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) to disabilities in certain subject areas.

“We can re-teach a lesson or help them study for an exam, or work on a project, breaking it down,” Ainspan said. “We also push into the classroom so we learn what the assignments are.”

Often times, she said, high school students will say, “We don’t have work to do.” The TAs are therefore in regular contact with the mainstream teachers, sending regular reports.

Ainspan, who is now working with freshmen, originally worked with juniors and seniors; she said help from TAs could make the difference for some in graduating.

“A lot of our students come from homes where education is not valued as much as in the past,” said Ainspan. “We deal with students who don’t care...It’s hard to get them to care.”

“We’re there as advocates, to negotiate with the mainstream teachers,” she said, “to see if they can re-take a test, or do an extra assignment, whatever it takes to get them through.


All three of the TA leaders praised the Guilderland school system and proudly told of the success of their own children.

Sprague’s two sons went through the middle school before the family moved out of the district. One is now a wildlife biologist in Arizona and the other lives locally and works as a civil engineer. Her daughter is  a medic in the National Guard and also has served as an assistant chaplain at soldiers’ funerals.

Myers’s four children are all Guilderland graduates. One is a teacher; another an accountant; her third is an oncology nurse; and her youngest a senior at the University of Albany and a pole vaulter on the track team. Being a TA, she said, has allowed her to be “very supportive of their education.”

Ainspan’s daughter has graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton and will be attending law school at the University of Buffalo. Her twin sons are juniors at Guilderland High School. One is a percussionist in the Empire State Youth Orchestra and the other is a volunteer firefighter.

The trio said they stay at their jobs, despite their qualifications and the low pay, because they find the work satisfying. And, they feel they have the support of their colleagues.

The TA leaders said the teachers and principals had been very supportive of them.

“The teachers appreciate us,” said Ainspan. “They know what their day would be without us.”

“The teachers are not at all looking forward to these cuts,” said Sprague. “They want the TAs to be compensated.”

“You do feel like you make a difference,” says Ainspan.

She tells of a high-school student who came to her upset about “a teenage angst kind of thing.”

“She knew our room was a safe place,” said Ainspan of the learning workshop. “We had a talk and she felt better....If kids are having a meltdown, they come to the learning workshop,” she concluded.

“If they forget their lunch money, they come to us,” said Myers.

“They know they will find adults that will not judge them but will listen to them. That’s priceless,” said Ainspan.

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