ESP of the Year: Christina Cahill
Always Be Kind
2021 ESP of the Year offers lessons in patience and grace she’s learned in nearly 50-year career
What’s your job?
If you ask 1,000 different people this question, you will likely get 1,000 different answers. Ask any of our 11,500 members of North Dakota United members, and you’ll get a lot of different answers, too. But if you ask Christina Cahill, a paraeducator for Mt. Pleasant Public School in Rolla and the 2021 NDU Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year, she’ll tell you that there is one unifying thread woven throughout almost every one of those responses.
“I think it’s everybody’s job to care for children,” Cahill said.
That’s been Cahill’s job for more than four decades, both as a preschool teacher for 42 years and the last four years in her position as a paraeducator for in Rolla. “If you see a need, you need to be there for the child, no matter what position you have,” she said. “It’s never just one person’s job to pick up or clean or to stop a child from running the hallway. Those jobs belong to all of us that work there. I think all those positions are so very important, they’re vital.”
Cahill’s path toward becoming a life-long public educator started in Maddock, where she was raised in a large family. She said she was inspired to care for children at a young age by her family and their babysitter. “She was an only child, and she was asked to babysit a family of eight children,” Cahill said. “And she did that every Saturday for my mom and dad while they worked at the bakery — I’ve just always been around kids, though, and I think that was the driving force that had me go into this career.”
She received a bachelor’s degree in education from Mary College, now University of Mary in Bismarck, with a minor in early childhood education. After college, she started in her position at Turtle Mountain Head Start in Belcourt, when the program was still relatively new.
“When I arrived, there were six classrooms of about 18 to 20 children apiece, and two adults per classroom,” she said. “And when I left, there were, oh my goodness, 11 classrooms plus some outreach centers around there. Our director was in charge of five different centers at the time, in neighboring communities. I think they all had basically the same class size. So, a lot of children.”
In the early years of her teaching career, she learned to depend upon the assistance of colleagues. “We had an aide that was with us, and later on, we ended up with a parent aide also, so there were three adults in the classroom,” she recalled. “But that didn’t happen right away. We developed our own lesson plans. We wrote our own IEPs back then. We did our own referrals back then for children that we thought might need some extra help ... Back then, you know, there just wasn’t as much staff on hand. So, we were a very close working community.”
When the time was right, Cahill retired from teaching. She wanted to still stay busy and continue to work with children, though, and circumstances were right for her to find a new position in education.
“I’ve always lived in Rolla,” she said. “I live a block from the school. The elementary principal that’s in Rolla right now, she sent her two children to Head Start and I was their teacher. And so, I had called her when I retired from Belcourt and asked if they were any paraprofessional jobs opening. She said, yes, so that’s how I came to Rolla.”
In her time as a para, Cahill has come to be known among her fellow educators as a dependable co-worker and friend, and a tireless advocate for children with special needs. “She does an excellent job working with our students,” said Brenda Seehafer, a Title I teacher in Rolla and the NEA Director for North Dakota United. “Some of the students that she works with are the students who have behavior or social/emotional issues. She is always willing to try out whatever program or system is discussed for the child. She is always willing to do what is asked.”
Cahill was selected as the 2021 NDU ESP of the Year because of the dedication and passion she displays for students, and for lending a helping hand to her fellow professionals in education. She received the award at a staff meeting in Rolla on Nov. 30, 2020. NDU President Nick Archuleta was able to Zoom into the regularly scheduled meeting, and his appearance took Cahill by surprise in announcing her selection.
If you see a need, you need to be there for the child, no matter what position you have.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Cahill said, with a laugh. “But it’s very rewarding to know that people recognize you for this, that you have actually made a difference. But this has been such an honor and such a humbling experience. But I also feel that there are so many people out there that are so deserving of something like this, that it’s not just me.”
Seehafer said Cahill possesses a unique ability to keep children focused on the task at hand while also calming their emotions. “She just has that way with students in that she can get them to relax,” Seehafer said.
And the one piece of advice she has for all educators is this: Always be kind. “I just think that’s so important nowadays when you don’t know what children come to school with,” she said. “If they can relate to somebody being kind, I think it is worthwhile to put that extra effort forward and be kind.”