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Back to School: How one retiree made the jump from teacher to paraeducator

By Nina Sears

Bill Hrdlicka wasn’t finished teaching when he retired in 1997.

Yet, a degenerative eye condition made his eyes tired--a problem for any English teacher with mounds of term papers and essays to read. Instead, Hrdlicka found a new way to remain in the classroom: he traded his traditional English class to work with special needs students as a paraeducator for grades 7-12. 

Hrdlicka works one-on-one with more than 10 children ranging in grades throughout a packed day--his only break is a 45-minute lunch. But, that’s no problem for Hrdlicka, who finds great joy in this role at Hankinson Public High School in Hankinson, North Dakota.

“I find it very rewarding to keep working with young people… [Their] vitality continually makes me feel young.” 

 Hrdlicka’s duty to teach beckoned despite his retirement. Now, after nearly seven years as a paraeducator, he has no plans of stopping any time soon. “[I enjoy] working with the kids,” he says. “I like to see them be successful.”

Hrdlicka became involved with special education students when he filled in for Hankinson Elementary School’s principal in the 2001-02 school year. He took one troubled young man under his wing, working with him one-on-one in the office. The individual attention eventually helped the student return to the classroom.

Hrdlicka decided to embrace a second career in education by becoming a paraeducator. He now tutors students individually to strengthen reading, math, and study skills.

For several summers, Hrdlicka attended special state-sponsored workshops to increase his knowledge of working with children who have autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and other neurological disorders. Though he has faced many challenges in the position, Hrdlicka’s devotion to all of his students continues to drive him. 

“The children that have more advanced issues, like autistic children, are some of the most difficult to work with,” he acknowledges, “but they’re also the most rewarding.”
“There are so many different ways that kids learn. You can usually find one or two [ways] if you work with them and observe them.”

One high school junior, who read on the fourth-grade level and struggled with public speaking, worked with Hrdlicka for two years. With Hrdlicka’s help, the student was able to complete projects and homework, and could nearly read on the eighth-grade level by graduation.

The student was so touched he thanked Hrdlicka with a plaque and a note that read: “Thank you for giving me a life.”

“It chokes me up more than anything,” Hrdlicka says, adding that the students he works with as a para often go out of their way to show their appreciation.

Hrdlicka encourages others to consider becoming paraeducators as a way to become involved in the local school system.

“Even if for half a day ...we can give back to our community,” he says. “If you are a para who starts and stays in the system for a while, that’s an experience that is invaluable.”

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