I was student teaching, I had to learn the hard way that being a teacher in a
special education classroom involves more than knowing good ABA or PBIS or RTI
or any of the other million and one interventions we have at our disposal each
day. It also means being a manager of people and learning how to get those
people to work in a way that ultimately benefits the students, and to work with
the teacher to create an environment where education can happen.
experiences really brought the issue of the paraprofessional to the forefront
of my thinking so that even now I tend to obsess about it to the point that,
maybe in the future, I can conduct some research and begin to offer ways to
make that job a rewarding career for some folks.
first issue was in my first setting—a resource room for EBD students in an
elementary school. It was a small thing, to be sure, but one day a student
asked me for some candy. Well, fact is, candy was a reward he had not earned
that day so the answer was no. A minute later, the paraprofessional was giving
the student candy. I was perplexed; the student happy.
second incident came in my second setting where a young first-year teacher in
another room was having trouble with her
paraprofessionals because she was 20-something in her first year of teaching and
the paraprofessionals were many-something, had children of their own, and were a
bit condescending toward her. It was a source of constant frustration for her. She
was the professional, but she had too many mothers each day exercising their
own wisdom. Being a mom does not necessarily qualify one to work with
students who are differently-abled and have unique gifts nor, furthermore, does
it give one the right to undermine the teacher—regardless of age or years in
one of this post, I started outlining the reasons
my paraprofessional and I have such a successful working relationship. First,
s/he needs to be flexible and able to reinforce what the teacher does. Second,
s/he needs to have to freedom to act as a balance to the teacher when the
teacher pushes too hard (something that will be negotiated when the student is
not present). And, third, s/he needs to be open to direction and not take
on to my fourth point, I encourage my paraprofessionals to share their ideas. I
encourage them to be creative, to use their talents to make the classroom a
better place, to make learning exciting, fun, and memorable. They help make our
classroom a place students like and want to be. I think teachers should
encourage this so that the paraprofessional has some ownership in what is going
on and the success that follows. I made certain that, even though we had
limited space, my paraprofessional had her own workspace. This gives her
ownership in the work we are doing each day.
paraprofessionals, good ones, are passionate about the students—that is, the work
is more than just a job; people are our passion. A fine example is that the
week before school started, my paraprofessional was in our classroom every day
decorating, making educational games, dreaming with me about what the room
should look like, rearranging stuff after she had already finished it and I
decided upon a last minute change, and taking training classes. If I showed you
a picture of our room, I would also point out that 90 percent of what is done
is her work. I might have an idea, but she brings it to life. She understands
well that what we do is not about me and it’s not about her. It is about the
students entrusted to our care for seven hours per day.
I will have more to say about this in part three of this post, but the fact of
the matter is some people should not be paraprofessionals in the special
education classroom (self-contained or otherwise). I believe very, very strongly
services provided by paraprofessionals can have a major impact on whether
students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education.” (Giangreco,
Edelman, Broer, & Doyle (2001).*
I would also add that being in the room is
just as much about temperament and personality as it is about whether you are highly
qualified in reading and math. For my money, I will take a person who is
patient with a child over one who has memorized the Encyclopedia Britannica any
day of the week. A person who is in the classroom because they can be does not necessarily mean they should be. I wish the rules could
change, but until they do, it is the teacher who has to set and enforce
boundaries for the paraprofessional.
Having come from the ranks of the paraprofessional
(I have 4.5 years of service credit as an educational assistant), I understand
the hard, often unnoticed and unsupported, work that paraprofessionals do on a
daily basis. Because I understand it, I have developed some strong opinions
about that work. My ideas are based on experience, personal work ethic, and
people watching (or observations) in classrooms during graduate school.
In part three of this post, I will share some
thoughts on what I think is a way forward for the paraprofessionals who work
alongside intervention specialists in the classroom and suggest some changes
that I think need to take place in the overall scheme of things.
*This is an excellent article reviewing 10
years’ worth of professional literature concerning paraprofessionals. I highly
recommend you read it.