This three-part series on Paraprofessionals is adapted with permission from the Council on 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/
I know a paraprofessional who was responsible for getting children off the bus in the morning. Among the children who were helped off the bus was a student with multiple disabilities who was amazingly adept at taking off her shoes and did so frequently. One morning, the student arrived on the bus and had, predictably, in the course of her ride, taken off her shoes. The paraprofessional collected the child and promptly allowed her to walk into the school building without shoes, in nothing but socks. In November. This was, in my view, an individual who was not trained properly to work with students with disabilities.
In this final part of my three-part series, I will note three ideas that I have come across in literature and in my personal experience that I believe might pave the way forward if we are serious about providing paraprofessionals with the respect their work deserves.
First, the training for paraprofessionals—especially those who work one on one with students or in self-contained classrooms—simply must be improved. “[T]he nondatabased literature suggests that pre-service training for paraprofessionals is virtually nonexistent and in-service training continues to be insufficient” (Giangreco, Edelman, Broer, & Doyle, 2001).
What I have found is that most of the training takes place on the spot so that not only is the classroom teacher trying to write curriculum, educate students with varying and unique needs, collect data, and develop appropriate evidence-based interventions, but he or she is also trying to educate adults in the ways of prompts, classroom management, etc.
It is an unreasonable expectation of the teacher and an unfair distraction for the children for training to occur on the spot. It needs to be conducted proactively and frequently. Perhaps paraprofessionals should receive professional days for professional training seminars. If they are trained properly, then we can avoid the disturbing scenes such as I mentioned above and entrust paraprofessionals with more serious responsibilities such as dealing with difficult behavior, instruction in reading and math, and more.
Second, where are all the men? A serious problem, from my perspective, is the near complete absence of men in the role of special education paraprofessional. In my experience, many of the children in the EBD classrooms come from homes where men are either not the biological father, not present at all, incarcerated (I have worked in urban and rural areas, this may not hold true in areas of more affluent SES), or the parents are split so that there may be two fathers. Male paraprofessionals would be a great boon to the boys and girls in our schools who need a positive male role model in their lives.
I have worked as a teacher’s aide, been a substitute teacher, student taught, and now I have my own classroom. I have worked at the pre-school, elementary, junior high, and high school levels. I have conducted observations and volunteered. To date, I have never met another male teacher’s aide/paraprofessional.
Children need to see men in supportive roles. Children need to see responsible, caring, affectionate men working in such an environment. I have no explanation as to why there are so few men, but I believe it would be of great benefit to the students and to teachers if more men filled some of those positions.
The Right People in the Room
Third, Appl (2006) noted that schools should be more considerate of making matches between first-year teachers and paraprofessionals. I would take this a step further and suggest that schools ought to be more considerate of making matches, period. Appl also points to the importance of professional preparation and philosophical compatibility between teacher and paraprofessional. I want to see that taken a step further.
Teachers ought to have some say-so over who is in their classroom. In my opinion, it is not productive to place two or more adults in a room and ask them to “mesh’’ if their differences are vast. Yet, that is exactly what can/does happen in many schools. Adult personality tensions don’t belong around the students in our classrooms. Moreover, it is not productive to ask a student to work with an adult all day long when that adult is there only because they have to be in order to have a job. It serves no one’s interest for unqualified people to be in rooms just because union rules say they can be. I strongly believe that the adults writing the contracts need to recognize this and come up with an alternative way of dealing with budget cuts and future staff reductions instead of allowing bumping (or riffing) as it is currently conceived. Allowing for consistency of staff in special education classrooms ought to be paramount.
Giangreco, Edelman, Broer, and Doyle (2001) asked this challenging question: “Does it make sense to have the least qualified employee primarily responsible for students with the most complex challenges to learning?” I believe very strongly that unqualified adults should not be working with children whose gifts and abilities they do not understand, whose personalities are an ill fit for such an environment. On the other hand, I also happen to believe that things can change.
I know another paraprofessional who showed up at the school every day. Of the three paraprofessionals who were in the room, she was always the first to arrive and the last to leave—well beyond her contract hours. She made certain the work bins were ready for the next day and that the work we did that day was put back in its appropriate place. She took direction well. She listened and she communicated. And every day, she came prepared for the grief she would undoubtedly take from one of our students. She was dedicated to the students first, loyal to the classroom teacher, and faithful to her job.
And the best part? She knew enough to put shoes on a student who had taken them off on the bus ride. This is the paraprofessional I want in my room—every day.