Meet 2024 MTA ESP of the Year Karen Torres

Meet 2024 MTA ESP of the Year Karen Torres

Karen Torres, 2024 MTA ESP of the Year
"ESP of the Year Karen Torres is committed to securing a living wage for all Education Support Professionals. "We can do hard things," she said.

Karen Torres, an instructional assistant in the Andover Public Schools for 17 years, is the MTA 2024 Education Support Professional of the Year, a recognition that celebrates her commitment to her students and relentless advocacy for her colleagues.

An active union leader at Bancroft Elementary School, Torres has played a pivotal role in the Andover Education Association. As a member of the union's bargaining team, she helped secure what the local president called “the best ESP contract in the Commonwealth in 2023,” showcasing her commitment to improving the working conditions and wages for her fellow ESPs.

Contract fights lift wages, profile of paraeducators
Karen Torres, 2024 MTA ESP of the Year

When Karen Torres started 17 years ago, the expectation was to help classroom teachers set up projects or grade tests. But with students needing increased support, IAs have become frontline workers for delivering special education services.

"The responsibilities grew. The compensation did not. And the recognition did not," Torres, pictured at a 2022 contract rally, told MTA Today.

Read More in MTA Today

Torres learned of her award at a surprise celebration, organized by her union and the MTA. As the chair of the Instructional Assistants unit, she is known for her inspiring phrase: “This is just the beginning.” In Andover, Torres drew inspiration from strong contract campaigns in Haverhill and Malden, which focused on a living wage for all members.

In her acceptance speech, Torres expressed gratitude and humility, saying, “I’m so honored, so humbled, and shocked to receive the individualized ESP of the Year award. But, in this union, it should have been the ESPs of the Year award. My friends worked so hard to accomplish what we did in November.”

A living wage was at the top of the contract priority list, she explained. “It all trickles down from there, including the ESP turnover that our most vulnerable students see.”

As an instructional assistant, her role involves supporting students with complex disability profiles, helping them develop academically, behaviorally, socially, emotionally, and in daily functioning. Torres’s impact is profound, as evidenced by the numerous recommendation letters from her colleagues, fellow unionists and Andover parents who submitted testimonies on her behalf for the award.

Kim Rabold, an assistant principal, described Torres as a mentor and trusted colleague. “Karen takes it upon herself to mentor new staff, helping to orient them to the building, the district, their colleagues and job expectations. Other paraprofessionals look to her for her leadership and knowledge,” Rabold wrote, in nominating Torres.

Torres’s efforts on the AEA’s bargaining team were instrumental in securing provisions that elevated ESP priorities in the recent contract. MTA President Max Page lauded her dedication, saying, “She’s a relentless advocate for Andover instructional assistants. The work that Karen has done in Andover sets the bar for the rest of the state for ESP living wages.”

Karen Torres, 2024 MTA ESP of the Year
MTA ESP of the Year Karen Torres, center, pictured with (from left to right) MTA Vice President Deb McCarthy, 2019 ESP of the Year and Weymouth ESP Joni Cederholm, 2023 ESP of the Year and Malden ESP Paula Higgins and MTA President Max Page.

MTA Vice President Deb McCarthy praised Torres’s passion and professionalism. “It is widely understood that Education Support Professionals go above and beyond the mandates of the job, making sure that their students’ academic, social and emotional needs are met daily,” said McCarthy.

Joni Cederholm, a Weymouth ESP, former MTA ESP of the Year, and chair of the MTA Education Support Professionals Committee, praised Torres’s work and her compassion for students, families, and colleagues. She also noted Torres's role in creating a district training program for new ESPs.

“Karen was part of a force for bold action needed in Andover,” said Cederholm. “She’s a strong voice for the living wage campaign, showing the way for all of us in our locals, bargaining for amazing contracts that have never happened before. I hope we all learn from her example.”

“Karen knew that before any contract action could be successful, she and others had to create a sense of community within the workplace.”

MTA Vice President Deb McCarthy

Following the surprise announcement, McCarthy spoke with Torres about how Andover ESPs secured one of the best contracts in the state in 2023: through community building.

“Karen knew that before any contract action could be successful, she and others had to create a sense of community within the workplace,” McCarthy said. “She shared that we need to get to know each other, to be in a relationship around our shared values and common interests long before they could fight for what they deserve at the bargaining table. Folks need to feel like they are part of something bigger.”

Colleagues agreed. AEA President Matt Bach credited Torres’s yearslong effort, which led to a successful bargaining fight for a fair contract that was supported by parents and the community.

“The gains from the contract fight could never have happened without Karen Torres,” Bach said. “The campaign we ran in Andover was based on the tip of the spear, which was the living wage campaign. Karen did the essential groundwork.”

In his letter of recommendation, Bach highlighted Torres’s leadership in building an active IA bargaining unit within the AEA, ensuring Andover IAs “won the best contract in the Commonwealth in 2023.”

“The gains from the contract fight could never have happened without Karen Torres,”

Andover Education Association President Matt Bach

Torres affirmed that the work is never finished, and that she will endeavor to ensure that all ESPs in Massachusetts earn a living wage.

“We have each other’s back because we know now that we can do it because we’ve done it. We can do hard things.”

Karen Torres, 2024 MTA ESP of the Year,
Torres joins in a group hug with AEA members at the MTA ESP Conference in April.