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Education Support Professionals

The Power of One on One

Paraeducators prove themselves indispensable in the classroom.

by John Rosales

Julie Harrington

One of the best things about her job, says paraeducator Julie Harrington, is working one on one with her students.

“Paraeducators are able to build strong bonds with children because we work so closely with them,” says Harrington, who works with special education students at Waters Middle School in Newark, Delaware. “Although there are some days when I am surprised that I keep my sanity, those days are far outnumbered by the rewards of watching a child smile because he was able to accomplish even the simplest of tasks.”

Many of the students Harrington works with have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, or other disabilities that require special attention from paraeducators. 

“We work with small groups according to students’ ability level,” says Harrington, who has a bachelor’s degree and a “highly qualified” ranking within her state. “In this capacity, we provide instruction, whether teaching students how to write their names, count by fives, or how to brush their teeth, use deodorant, and fix their hair.”

While, like most paraeducators, Harrington devotes considerable attention to the academic and personal needs of students, she still finds time to arrange classroom desks, gather reading and writing supplies for the day’s lessons, help students get on and off the bus safely, and unpack book bags.

That’s another thing about being a paraeducator: You do whatever needs doing.

“Paras now assist in classroom management and activities such as student behavior, student retention of learning, communicating with parents, and a myriad of other activities instrumental to improving student performance,” says Laura Montgomery, president of the National Council of Education Support Professionals. “They are long removed from just making photocopies and putting up bulletin boards.”

Under the supervision of teachers, para­educators are often schools’ go-to staff to get things done quickly and efficiently. They prepare learning materials and implement behavior modification plans. They supervise playground activity, and even learn sign language to work more effectively with hearing-impaired students. Paraeducators exemplify a versatility that makes it difficult to pinpoint what they do because they do so much.

 Linda Howard

Linda Howard is a library paraeducator at Clarkdale Jerome School (K–8) in Clarkdale, Arizona. As the only paid staff person in the library, she is responsible for ordering books, filing school-related paperwork, conducting classes on how to navigate a library, and teaching students how to use computers.

Howard does not have her associate’s degree, but she has taken many college courses on children’s literature, management, leadership, and recordkeeping.

“I have a huge folder showing certificates from all the classes I have taken since coming to this job,” she says.

In the not-too-distant past, many para-educators received minimal training for all the tasks they are expected to (and willingly do) take on. Today, paraeducators are required to complete rigorous state and local exams, some to evaluate math, reading, and writing ability. They are also required to take additional certification exams and undertake other professional training, although requirements vary from state to state.

Education requirements also vary, but almost 30 percent of paraeducators have a two-year degree, 20 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and 5 percent have a master’s degree or higher. On the job, 91 percent of paraeducators work directly with students, including 75 percent who work with special education students.

At Putney Central School in Putney, Vermont, special education paraeducator Hannah van Loon works closely with teachers on promoting positive student behavioral skills and academic achievement.

Hannah Van Loon

“I’m a vital link for information about a student’s academic and social skills, especially during parent conferences,” says van Loon, who has a bachelor’s degree in human services and counseling and extensive training in math, literacy, and technology programs. “I know the students and their needs, and I know classroom expectations.”

Recently, van Loon was encouraged by a student who had a few expectations of her own.

“One of my student’s reading goals was changed because of an increase of words-read-per-minute,” she says. “Now, the student wants to reach even higher.”

Like van Loon, Howard also enjoys the satisfaction of seeing students succeed. When she reads to them, she often uses fun props and will use various voices to imitate story characters.

“My motivation is to show them that the library can be a fun place, and that reading can put their imaginations to work,” she says. “Sometimes, as I read a book sideways showing them pictures, they will correct me on a little word that I might have missed. It shows they are engaged in the story.”  

  Ann Kampitz

Ann Krampitz, a special education paraeducator at Willow Creek Intermediate School in Owatonna, Minnesota, says it is important to build relationships with students because it makes teaching and learning easier, especially regarding those with EBD—Emotional Behavioral Disorder.

“Without para support, EBD children wouldn’t be successful in the classroom,” says Krampitz, a certified instructor in Crisis Prevention Intervention. “When their anxiety or frustration arises, I provide the support necessary to help them find success.”

 If a student is becoming loud or is struggling to follow the rules, Krampitz will ask him to walk with her. She says, “We will go to a quiet room and regroup for a few minutes, then reenter the classroom.”

If necessary, Krampitz can be called upon to restrain a student if a fear exists that the student may harm himself or others.

“I provide an extra set of eyes and ears to all things going on in the classroom,” she says. It’s just another way that paraeducators use their expertise to keep things running smoothly so that the business of education can take place.

As she provides personalized attention  to students in need—“getting them on the right page, helping with spelling, or reading a test”—Krampitz must at all times be mindful of what other students are doing so the teacher can focus on teaching.

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