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/
The 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).*
When 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 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.
Having come from the ranks of the paraprofessional (I have 4.5 years of service 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/or observations in classrooms during graduate school.
What doesn’t work
Two experiences really brought the issue of the paraprofessional to the forefront of my thinking. The first experience was in 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.
The second incident involved a young, first-year teacher having trouble with her paraprofessionals. She was 20-something in her first year of teaching and the paraprofessionals were older, 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 does it give one the right to undermine the teacher—regardless of age or years in service.
What does work
In part one of this series, I started outlining the reasons my paraprofessional and I have such a successful working relationship. First, she is flexible and able to reinforce what I do as the teacher. Second, she has the freedom to act as a balance for me when I push too hard (something that we negotiate when the student is not present). And, third, she is open to direction and does not take correction personally.
Moving on to my fourth point, I encourage my paraprofessional to share her ideas. I want her to be creative, use her talents to make the classroom a better place, and make learning exciting, fun, and memorable. She helps make our classroom a place that students like and want to be. Even though we have limited space, I make certain that my paraprofessional has her own workspace. In this way, the paraprofessional has ownership of what is going on and the success that follows.
Fifth, good paraprofessionals are passionate about the students; the work is more than just a job. 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, and taking training classes. 90 percent of the setup of our classroom is her work. I might have an idea, but she brings it to life. She understands 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 each day.
Sixth, some people should not be paraprofessionals in the special education classroom (self-contained or otherwise). I believe very, very strongly about this. The temperament and personality of a person is often as important to being effective in the self-contained classroom as being highly qualified in reading and math. A person who is in the classroom because they can be does not necessarily mean they should be. It is the teacher’s responsibility to set and enforce boundaries for the paraprofessional.
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.
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