Every month this school year, BMORE will be placing a spotlight on a different PSRP (Paraprofessional & School Related Personnel, "para") to highlight their amazing work. PSRPs are leaders who make classrooms go, and are the most underappreciated educators in Baltimore City Public Schools.
The third in our series is Deborah Knowles, an office assistant at Patterson High School who also serves as the BTU building representative for Patterson’s PSRP members. Ms. Knowles has been working in Baltimore City Public Schools for 18 years. This includes working as an office assistant at Glenmount Elementary/Middle school as well as working in the IEP department at William S. Baer, a school for children with special needs. She has been in her current position as an office assistant at Patterson High School since August 2009. We sat down with Ms. Knowles on November 27th to learn more about her. Here is a transcript of that interview.
How did you wind up working for the school district?
I volunteered for 18 years at two different schools. So the principal hired me as an SES worker where you didn’t get any benefits. They eventually did away with that.
What do you do as an office assistant?
A little bit of everything. Wherever I’m needed. My main duty is supposed to be the Class of 2020. But I do attendance for the substitutes, trips, pullouts, testing... I do the suspension reports for the month. It was different at Glenmount. That was an elementary/middle school. In the main office at Glenmount, you don’t have a guidance department. You don’t have a business manager. It was only myself and the main secretary, Ms. Smoot, so we just did it all.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Probably trying to understand some of the students who don’t cooperate: why they think they can come to school and just stand in the hallways all day. And the second would be lack of communication in the building between administrators, teachers and students.
How does your job allow you to see different sides of what goes on at Patterson?
Because I’m in an assistant principal’s office, I see the administration’s side of things and I see the teachers’ side of things. I don’t think either side fully understands what the other side has to do.
You do a lot of additional things that aren’t part of your job description. Why do you volunteer to take on extra duties that you aren’t required to do?
Probably because of my mother. My mother taught us growing up that you just did whatever needed to be done. Plus my mother volunteered me to do an awful lot of stuff while I was in school with my brothers and sisters in their classes. I think that’s why I volunteered for 18 years in the school when my kids were little.
What do you wish other people knew about you?
I wish the students knew that I’m not really mean when I’m constantly telling them to get out of the hallway or I won’t open bathrooms without them having a pass. As far as the administrators are concerned, probably the main thing is if I know how to do something, just let me do it without having egos play into it and giving me a hard time. I think another main one would be if I felt comfortable saying to certain people things that I see that I don’t quite understand why they’re doing it that way, like some of the administrators, but that’s never gonna happen. We [support staff] all just keep quiet because they have more authority than us and we want our jobs.
What supports do you wish you had from the union that you don't currently receive?
Going back 15 years, when they made instructional aides and non-instructional aides (and I’m non-instructional), we were told that they were working on getting something in place for the office assistants, the secretaries, because being non-instructional, I make a lot less than a classroom aide. We were promised by Neil Ross at the time that they were working on getting us a different category, not lumped in with non-instructional aides. They need a different category for us that are doing office work. I went to a union meeting last year and discovered that there were a lot of non-instructional aides running front offices because they were cheaper than hiring a full-time secretary. They were doing the same work as a main school secretary, getting a lot less pay.
What made you decide to run for PSRP building rep two years in a row?
The first year, I’m not even sure why. I think I got talked into it and then decided that I could do this. I think no-one else wanted to do it and usually if no-one wants to do something, I give up and say, “OK, I’ll do it.” That goes back to my mom. And I ran for re-election because I get into routines where I just do things for years, like I volunteered 18 years in a school. I did 25 years at the Little League concession stand. It’s like I just get into a routine and I just stay.
Why do you think it’s important that the PSRPs have their own building representative when we already have a teacher building rep?
Because we are in a different category. We don’t fall under teachers. Some of our problems are a lot different, especially the classroom aides. Here they have a really good relationship with the teachers they work with, but in other schools it’s not the same.
You were one of only 7 PSRPs to vote “YES” on BMORE’s proposed constitutional amendment to make voting more accessible. Why do you think more PSRPs didn’t vote for the amendment? What can we do to build more solidarity between PSRPs and teachers?
I think a lot of them didn’t even show up because they just don’t worry about what’s going on [in the union]. They just come and do their job. And in other BTU votes, the hours that you have to vote, they’re in classrooms and they can’t just get away like the teachers. I think for a lot of them, it’s just a job and we go in to work and do our job, and that’s it. So they don’t worry about anything else. I keep giving them any printouts that I get to make them aware of what’s going on and I am talking to them about getting more involved. And they’re actually starting to come with questions lately. I think because I constantly give them paperwork, they’re starting to think about things, because I have gotten more questions lately.
What do you think about a PSRP to teacher program?
I think it’s a great idea. I think there’s a PSRP member downstairs who’s been thinking about becoming a teacher.
What keeps you coming back to work at Patterson each year?
Probably the staff and the students. I enjoy being here. I will admit this year’s been hard. But even with all the problems in the building, it still feels like a family.
Patterson staff on Ms. Knowles:
"In a profession where it can feel like there is too much to do, and not enough time to do it, Ms. Knowles is constant proof for me that I am not in this alone. She frequently offers to support me with making copies or fixing my attendance errors bef