“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).
Indeed, this was one of the biggest issues during my student teaching experience that I decided would not be an issue when I actually started teaching. Ironically, I understand it too well because I started out as an educational assistant and, at times, was a substitute in the special education classroom. Trust me when I say that, given what I now know about students with disabilities, I was worse than clueless then.
But 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 given certain rules, what choice do they have?
I know how much training I have had to be a licensed moderate/intensive intervention specialist in an educational setting and sometimes I believe it is unfair (to adults and children) that some paraprofessionals are in the same room simply because the union permitted them to bump someone else.
That said, what I would like to share in my next three posts are a few things that I have come to believe about the paraprofessional who works in the EBD classroom. This may not be your experience and you may believe differently; nevertheless, I encourage some dialogue because the relationship we as educators have with our paraprofessionals is just as important as the work we do with our students every day.
Where there is disharmony and tension between adults, there is anxiety and frustration among the children. This is important to remember because students know when there is tension between adults. I have three sons and they always knew when there was tension between mom and dad. Kids are intuitive like that.
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 and 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.
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 counterintuitive ways.
We absolutely never contradict one another in front of a student. She believes in what we are doing for our students. I, as a matter of my own professional ethic and personal standard, treat my paraprofessionals with respect and dignity. But how successful would our students be if, in fact, we were reinforcing contradictory ideas in them? Thus, I make the effort to teach the paraprofessionals what needs to be done. Good paraprofessionals buy into it.
Second, we have a secret code that we use when I am -- what’s the right way to say this -- not being helpful? Yes, that’s it. 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 paraprofessionals and I trust their judgment because they understand my expectations.
Third, paraprofessionals, good ones, 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. This was not helpful from either point of view. 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 they have 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 encouraged them to be everything they can be? Have you set them up for success or failure? Have you communicated clearly what you expect of them every day? Are they props? Are they 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 you are doing?
I read that “[T]eachers and paraeducators work to promote the academic and socioemotional well-being of all students and this work requires a well-organized classroom, including a plan for all adults.” (Carnahan, Williamson, Clarke, Sorenson, 2009). This is true. So, then, what is your plan for the adults under your charge? If you do not have a plan, I will bet they make their own. And that may not serve the children, also under your charge, well.