Jerry: Paraprofessionals, Part One

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CEC_logowith_sloganThis three-part series on Paraprofessionals is adapted with permission from the Council for Exceptional Children’s (CEC’s) Reality 101 series. Jerry is a special educator teaching in a self-contained classroom for K-5 students. Find his ongoing blog series at http://www.cecreality101.org/blogger-jerry/

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Many paraprofessionals who assist with instructional tasks do not receive the training that they need so that they can be successful at these tasks. (Keller, Bucholz, Brady, 2007).

With rare exception, instructional aides, paraprofessionals, or educational assistants — whatever we want to call them — are typically not placed in a specific place because they have had specific training. That is, people are placed in rooms by rank or seniority, often with little training, and sometimes against their desires. But within the constraints of a formal school environment, what choice do they have?

I know how much training I have received to be a licensed moderate/intensive intervention specialist in an educational setting. I believe it is unfair (to adults and children) that some paraprofessionals are in a position, regardless of ability or training, simply because the union or school leadership permitted them to choose their assignment first. That said, I would like to share in these three posts a few things that I have come to believe about the paraprofessional who works in the Emotional and Behavior Disorders (EBD) classroom. This may not be your experience, and you may believe differently.

Let me just say, without equivocation, that I have the best paraprofessional in the world. What I say here is based on what her example has been and the way she has worked with me in the EBD classroom to create an environment for our students that is conducive to learning with the sort of behavioral interventions necessary to help our students. I would be lost without her efforts, her work ethic, and her friendship. If I have had any success in the classroom with my students, she deserves an equal share of the praise.

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On the same page

First, my paraprofessional taught me that, in order for the program to be successful, the paraprofessional has to buy into it. In other words, the paraprofessional has to be flexible and teachable and able to reinforce what the teacher does—not work in counterproductive, contradictory, or counter-intuitive ways.

We absolutely never contradict one another in front of a student. She believes in what we are doing for our students. I make a conscious effort to treat paraprofessionals with respect and dignity. But how successful would our students be if we were reinforcing contradictory ideas in them?

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Communicating as a team

Second, we have a secret code that we use when I am — what’s the right way to say this — not being helpful? I do not approach teaching with the mistaken idea that I am always right or that I never push too hard. So, there are times when the paraprofessional will signal me that I am not being helpful with a student who is having a tough time, that I need to dial it down or take a different approach.

It is easy to forget sometimes that I am the adult; she helps me remember. I gave her leave to do so, and I expect her to be honest. I view us as equals in the classroom, working together for the students so that they receive the best possible free and appropriate education. Sure, I bear a significant responsibility and the ultimate blame for failure, but we are a team. I trust my paraprofessional and I trust her judgment because she understands my expectations.

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Keeping it professional

Third, good paraprofessionals are open to direction and do not take said direction personally. In my student teaching experience, one of my mentors did not get along well with one of the paraprofessionals in the room (she continually worked against the teacher, which was not helpful). So anytime there was correction, it was always taken personally. It was a very awkward situation and made me terribly uncomfortable, especially because it was evident that the paraprofessional did not want to be in the room in the first place. On the other hand, good teachers know how to speak professionally to another adult without making it personal or making the adult feel as though he or she has to walk around on eggshells all the time, afraid to make a mistake or ask questions.

This is just the first of three posts on paraprofessionals. In the meantime, reflect upon your own relationship with the adults in your classroom. Have you set them up for success or for failure? Have you communicated clearly what you expect of them every day? Are they treated as “props” or copy machine jockeys? Or are they valued members of your team who are treated as professionals, are expected to work, and understand the importance of the work they are doing?

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