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. It very well could be that in other states such training is already taking place, however, “[T]he nondatabased literature suggests that preservice training for paraprofessionals is virtually nonexistent and inservice training continues to be in-sufficient” (Giangreco, Edelman, Broer, & Doyle, 2001; McGrath, Johns, Mathur, 2010). Furthermore, McKenzie (2011) notes that improved training serves to increase retention of special education paraprofessionals.
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, DTT, PBS, the Force, and…well, do I really need to go on with this list?
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, too, should receive professional days for professional training seminars and such. If they are trained properly, from the start, then we can avoid the disturbing scenes such as I mentioned above and, consequently, entrust paraprofessionals with more serious responsibilities such as dealing with difficult behavior, instruction in reading and math, and more. I realize some training does take place in the manner I am suggesting. My point is that paraprofessionals need more of it.
Second, where are all the men? Seriously? 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 that I have seen in the EBD classrooms (especially in student teaching) come from homes where men are either not the biological father, not present at all, the parents are split so that maybe there are two fathers, or the father is incarcerated (I have worked in urban and rural areas, this may not hold true in areas of more affluent SES.) 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 worked as a teacher’s aide for five years in a junior high school. I have been a substitute teacher in many schools. I have student taught and now I have my own classroom. I have worked in pre-school, elementary, junior high and high school. I have conducted observations and volunteered. To date I am the only male teacher’s aide/paraprofessional I have ever met.
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 (I have conjecture), but I believe it would be of great benefit to the students and to teachers if more men filled some of those roles.
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. Again, Appl points to professional preparation and philosophical compatibility between teacher and paraprofessional as significantly important (and I agree). I want to see that taken a step further.
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 so vast that meshing is impossible and yet that is exactly what can/does happen given bumping rules that are in place in many unions. It is, again, not productive to ask a student to put up with an adult all day long when the adult has no genuine interest in being around the students or in the room and is there only because they had to be in order to have a job.
Teachers ought to have some say-so over who is in their classroom. I realize I am asking a lot, but the fact is, not every personality is a match. Furthermore, it does not do well to have personality tension around the students in our classrooms. The current rules governing how paraprofessionals are placed (or retained) are, at best, antiquated and at worst, detrimental.
It serves no one’s interest for unqualified people to be in rooms just because the union rules say they can be. Furthermore, I strongly believe that the adults writing the contracts need to recognize this and come up with an alternative way of dealing with potential 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 and at the forefront of contract negotiations and, frankly, common sense.
Giangreco, Edelman, Broer, & Doyle, (2001) asked significant and penetrating questions concerning the work of paraprofessionals with students who have disabilities. I found this one most challenging: “Does it make sense to have the least qualified employee primarily responsible for students with the most complex challenges to learning?” (See also Giangreco, Edelman, Broer, 2001). Well, what do you think? And if you answer ‘no,’ then what are you prepared to do to see that changes take place? 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 and should change.
I know another paraprofessional who showed up at the school every day—first. Of the three paraprofessionals who were in the room, she was always the last to leave—well after her contract stipulated that she could leave. She made certain the work bins were ready for the next day, she made certain 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 was there: on time, prepared for the grief she would undoubtedly take from one of our students, and with an “I won’t quit” attitude. She was pure gold—dedicated to the students first, loyal to the classroom teacher, and faithful to her job—and worth far more to the classroom teacher than the teacher knew.
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.
For further reference, see The Development and Field Test of an Employment Interview Instrument for School paraprofessionals, Dillon & Ebmeier, 2006.*
*The date might be wrong, my copy is cut-off and I had trouble locating another copy online.