Teacher + Paraeducator = Student Success
In my third-grade special education classroom, my students often profess their innermost feelings to me―sometimes sweet, sometimes sad, and sometimes downright funny. But nothing prepared me for when Davin, a 9-year-old student with autism, exclaimed to the class paraeducator, “Mrs. Walsh, I love you. Will you marry me?”
Since the beginning of the year, Davin had demonstrated difficulty establishing relationships with others in our room. Sharing his feelings with his paraeducator was a huge accomplishment. It was evidence of the hard work and dedication that Mrs. Walsh showed while working with Davin. His growth demonstrates the collaborative success that teachers and paraeducators can accomplish together.
Paraeducators, also known as paraprofessionals or teacher assistants, are trained professionals who work in the classroom under the supervision of the classroom teacher. They are required to pass state or local certification exams and complete special training. According to the National Education Association, nearly three fourths of all paraeducators provide services to students with disabilities. In such settings, they may work with students one-on-one or in small groups.
Paraeducators represent an important resource to which all special education students and teachers should have access. In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) highlighted the importance of paraeducators in the classroom. This was one of the first times that paraeducators were acknowledged in federal legislation as part of the team that provides educational services to students with disabilities.
As a special education teacher, I recognize the impact that paraeducators have on my students. They are the eyes and ears of my classroom, and I value our collaborative efforts to provide our students with the best education possible. Communication is key, and teachers and paraeducators should have open and honest conversations about expectations in the classroom. However, support for paraeducators must go beyond the classroom walls. School administrators also should recognize and value paraprofessionals as an integral member of the school team.
Here are some ways to elevate the role of the paraeducator:
Create a culture of respect and team unity. Because paraeducators usually are considered classroom “helpers,” their importance often is overlooked. Their job, however, is meaningful and important. Paraeducators are a vital part of the educational team charged with contributing to a child’s instruction and should be valued as such.
Provide opportunities for paraeducators to serve as an extension of the teacher. Ask, “How can paraeducators contribute their expertise to best meet the needs of every student?” This expertise may include the paraeducator providing reinforcement of a lesson to a small group, working one-on-one with an individual student, or monitoring a student’s behavior throughout the day. Paraeducators should not be limited to grading papers, hanging bulletin boards, or making copies for teachers. A paraeducator’s primary focus should be in the classroom working with students. To emphasize this role, school districts can create detailed job descriptions outlining the specific roles and responsibilities of paraeducators.
Encourage teachers and school administrators to help paraeducators build relationships with students. Research has shown that children perform better academically when they are in a positive school climate. Children need to know they are loved and cared for unconditionally by all school employees who work with them, not just the teacher. Paraeducators should be allowed opportunities to get to know their students and vice versa. This mutual building of trust and understanding can lead to a greater impact on student achievement.
- Offer paraeducators the ability to grow in their profession through professional development workshops. Paraeducators can offer academic support to students who need additional assistance in the classroom. To help meet the needs of all students, these professionals should be given the opportunity to learn how to best meet the needs of a diverse population of students. Through professional development opportunities provided at the state and local levels, paraeducators can improve their effectiveness in the classroom to help all students reach their maximum potential.
Teachers, paraeducators, and school district leaders share a common goal. They strive to provide all students with a multitude of resources to help them grow in all facets of life: academically, behaviorally, socially, and emotionally. When leaders at state and local levels support this vision, a strong, ever-growing bond between teachers, paraeducators, administrators, and students is formed. This positive environment creates a foundation for student success.
I cannot imagine being effective in the classroom without the support of my paraeducators. We are committed to the success of our students by working together as a team.
Now it’s your turn. We want to hear your thoughts:
- What can states and districts do to better support paraeducators?
- In what ways can districts and administrators provide opportunities for paraeducators to serve as extensions of teachers?
Interested in learning more about how to support paraeducators? Check out our latest Policy Snapshot, Supercharging Student Success: Policy Levers for Helping Paraprofessionals Have a Positive Influence in the Classroom.