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 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.
Two 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.
The 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.
The 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 service.
In part 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 correction personally.
Moving 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.
Fifth, 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.
Sixth, 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 about this.
“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).*
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.