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Getting Educated: Paraeducators

Instructional and Noninstructional Assistants; Teacher and Program Aides; Library Aides, Technicians and Assistants; Preschool Care Givers; Building, Bus and Playground Monitors; Crossing Guards; Nonmanagerial Supervisors


"The range and flexibility of paraeducator positions make it difficult for most folks to understand exactly where our role begins and ends. We are the mortar that fits where it needs to fit to keep the whole structure together." -Sandie Blankenship, Special Education Paraeducator, North Kingstown, Rhode Island

Who Are We?

The changing landscape of public education has had a significant impact on the roles of support professionals who serve in our schools. Teacher shortages, increasing numbers of English language learners, and the rising enrollment of students with disabilities and other special needs are just some of the factors that make the need for a dynamic school team more necessary than ever. In this challenging environment, paraeducators -- also known as paraprofessionals -- play an increasingly critical role in improving student achievement.

Paraeducator means "along side of " and like their counterparts in the legal and medical fields -- paralegal and paramedics -- they assist and support the work team in a variety of ways. In many districts, these special professionals live in the school neighborhood, speak the language of the students and provide a special liaison to the community and its culture.

Employment of paraeducators has grown steadily and their functions have changed dramatically since they were introduced into classrooms as teacher aides almost 40 years ago. Their duties are no longer limited to recordkeeping, preparing materials, or monitoring students in lunchrooms and other settings. Today, paraeducators are active members in teams that provide instruction and other direct services to students and their parents.

Who are Paraeducators:

  • We comprise 46 percent of NEA ESP members -- more than 151,000 members
  • 81 percent of us work full time
  • 66 percent of us do not have an advanced degree, but 38 percent of us plan to earn one within the next four years
  • 85 percent of us have attended professional development training in the past two years
  • 12 percent of us are currently attending school or college
  • 71 percent of us work with special education students
  • 63 percent of us are paid on an hourly basis, with an average wage of $10.95 per hour
  • Our average annual salary is $15,348
        *Source: 2002 Status of NEA K-12 ESP Membership Study











3 Myths About Paraeducators

Myth #1: "Assisting in a classroom or school isn't challenging. There's no need for professional development."

While many of today's paraeducators originally came into the education system due to federal programs designed to provide supplemental or special services to groups of children facing academic obstacles, it didn't take long to realize that they would need ongoing professional development to meet the complex needs of these students.

"The range and flexibility of paraprofessional positions make it difficult for most folks to understand exactly where our role begins and ends," says Sandie Blankenship, a special education paraeducator in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. "But I feel like we're the mortar that fits where it needs to fit to keep the whole structure together."

Across America, paraeducators are indeed "keeping it together" by supporting and strengthening the curriculum taught by teachers, assisting with school instructional programs, and enabling teachers to spend more individualized time with students. Because of this, paraprofessionals need and want professional training.

Delaware's Gail Uncapher, President of the Red Clay Paraprofessional Association in Wilmington, says training is especially important because so many paraprofessionals work directly with students.

"Paraprofessionals in Red Clay often have no choice but to deal with the behavior of not only our own students, but other students who are causing trouble," she explains. "If we attend a training session on how to handle discipline with these students then we are armed with practical tools that we really need."

In this district, Uncapher, who has been working with mentally challenged children for 30 years, recently developed a one-day training event for her colleagues -- with no financial support from the school district. "I'm absolutely committed to getting my peers some training, so I simply ask potential trainers if they will work for free," she explains. Uncapher says she is amazed at the caliber of speakers who participate -- such as a state trooper to talk about safety, an instructor from the University of Delaware to discuss personal budgeting, and dynamic UniServ directors from the Delaware State Education Association.

"These workshops have been so beneficial" she says. "And I think people are finally waking up and realizing just how important we are in the education equation." Iowa's Michele Carter, who works with disabled preschoolers, agrees. Even before Iowa passed a paraprofessional certification law in 2000 - which states that paraprofessionals can earn a voluntary state certification license -- Carter earned a five-year Special Needs paraprofessional certificate from the state at Kirkwood Community College.

Now, she explains, she has reached a professional high. Her classroom partner, special education teacher Emily Dolezal, "wants me to use what I have learned and is willing to take suggestions, which makes me comfortable and relaxed."

Thanks to her coursework, Carter also shares the same vocabulary with Dolezal. "I used to say, 'no, that's not for me.' Now I know what teachers are talking about, and if you understand, you can have input."

Allyson Story, President of the Cedar Rapids Organization of Teacher Associates (CROTA), agrees. For the last several years, Story has led the charge to successfully modify Cedar Rapids' salary schedule for paraprofessionals who earn Iowa's voluntary certification license.

"If a paraprofessional takes a professional development class and brings that experience to the classroom, he or she will likely stay on the job longer, and that better serves students," she explains. Proof positive is that to date, not one paraprofessional who has earned state certification has quit his or her job.

Myth #2: "There is no room for career growth as a paraprofessional."

Louisiana paraeducator Iona Holloway, a former Senior NEA Executive Committee Member, believes now is a great time to be a paraprofessional.

"It's becoming a widely known fact: paraprofessionals are integral to successful schools," she says. "And with new requirements demanded by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now is the time to think about becoming highly qualified so that you can advance into teaching if that's what you want."

According to a recent NEA survey, nearly half of the nation's 650,000 K-12 paraprofessionals -- 49 percent -- say that's exactly what they want: training to become teachers.

Dr. Cathy Wooley-Brown, who developed Florida's Paraprofessionals as Teachers Program -- an innovative curriculum that provides alternative routes to teacher certification for support professionals -- says that today, "most school districts in America are developing comprehensive plans to provide professional development for paraprofessionals because they know they can't afford to lose these employees."

"Put simply, the paraprofessionals are the people who know the kids and the climate of the school," she adds. Not only do they already have hands-on classroom experience, but "paraeducators also offer ethnic diversity and a level of maturity that directly benefits school districts. And because they are already a part of the community and local schools, they are unlikely to move away or flee the teaching profession."

California's Kathy Crummey, president of the Hayward Education Association, believes finding teachers from within is a great way to build schools of the future. "Paraprofessionals have already shown their dedication in the classroom. They are established in the community and have a sense of history," she explains. "They understand basic classroom management, plus district policies and procedures. They are a valuable resource and can be a wonderful way to fill the teaching shortage."

More than ever, districts around the nation are developing teacher training programs specifically for their paraprofessionals.

For example, New Jersey's Trenton Paraprofessional Association (TPA) has bargained a new contract with the district that includes up to 12 tuition credits paid per year by the district if participating paraeducators choose to pursue other career opportunities within the district.

"There's a constant need to hire teachers in this urban district," explains Maureen Cronin, New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) UniServ Representative. "The board saw paras as a large resource. They represent a dedicated workforce already in place and living in the community that the district had not fully tapped."

Through the program, paraeducators with no college credits can take workshops and trainings offered through NJEA and outside sources. The contract also contains language on sabbatical leaves. Five paraprofessionals per year may receive sabbaticals for the purpose of pursuing an education degree. They keep their health benefits and half their salary and in return make a commitment to teach in the district for three years.

In Hayward, California, the Paraeducators Teacher Training Program has been providing college tuition assistance and support to paraeducators wishing to pursue a teaching career for three years. It is a collaborative venture by the Hayward Education Association, Hayward school district, Chabot Community College, California State University- Hayward, and other local associations.

Through state funding, and matching district funds, the program pays for paraeducators -- who must be employed at least half-time by the district -- to take classes toward a teaching credential.

Daphne Baxter, a paraeducator who works with emotionally disturbed students, is just one of many paraeducators taking advantage of the opportunity. "The program has been a godsend," says Baxter, who didn't have the money to go back to school on her own. "It has enabled me to go back to school now, instead of waiting five or six years."

Sandra Vasquez, a bilingual and special education resource paraeducator says it's not easy, but it's something she wants to do. Working 30 hours a week at Longwood Elementary School, taking 12 units at CSU-Hayward and being a single parent is a juggling act. "I have to prioritize," she explains. "After I help my daughters with their homework, then I have to do my homework."

And unlike some new teachers who don't realize how difficult the job is, Monica Ruiz, a paraeducator who works in a before- and after-school program, says the Teacher Training Program has helped prepare her for the reality of teaching.

"My confidence is high. I'm not afraid of being in the classroom or being with children," she explains. "Because of my work, I'm not intimidated about handling a class. Because I already have experience, I know exactly what I'm getting into."

Myth #3: "Paraeducators do not affect student achievement."

Student achievement depends on rigorous standards and a knowledgeable education team -- including paraprofessionals.

Additionally, because paraeducators are such an integral part of their communities -- more than 75 percent live in the school districts where they work -- they play a very important role in the lives of the students they work with. More often than not, they go above and beyond their job descriptions to make school better for their communities and the children.

New Jersey's Patricia Beaulieu, a teaching assistant at Green Township School, is one of them.

In addition to setting up an afterschool tutoring program in conjunction with the student council, she also helped establish an evening study group for seventh and eighth graders, and even prepared instructional materials for selected special needs students. On her own time, she completed specialized training on working with autistic students. And it's these new skills that enabled an autistic third grader to remain with his peers in a neighborhood school setting.

"She has been able to befriend even the most disaffected students and provide direction and guidance in the most caring manner imaginable," says teacher and former classroom partner Monica Kroger.

In Pennsylvania, Special Education Assistant Cecilia Pitcher, who works at Pocono Mountain High School, helps run a "Volunteers for Understanding" workshop that breaks down racial and cultural barriers and stereotypes.

This native of Ecuador has also put together a student Latino dance group that has performed on TV, in front of Girl Scouts, and even at an army depot.

In Coupeville, Washington, Deanna Schulz, a paraeducator and playground supervisor, started a school-wide mediation program that uses peer mediators to settle playground conflicts. Adapting a technique she learned during a training in conflict resolution, Schulz trained student mediators for 10 hours before and after school. Armed with clipboards and active listening skills, these young mediators now help their classmates find solutions to common playground clashes.

"They use language that gives complainants the power to choose, such as 'I see you guys are having a problem. Would you like us to help you with that?'"

But perhaps a story that Gwen Andrews, a veteran paraeducator in North Carolina, shares sums it up best.

She recalls how she and Sherry McDonald, her classroom partner at Konnoak Elementary in Forsyth County, once talked a special education student out of thinking he was stupid.

"We sat this child down and told him he had value and could be anything he wanted to be if he believed in himself," she says. After providing him personalized attention for much of the school year, the child started to thrive.

"By providing personal attention and helping build up students who come in with low self-esteem, I make a difference," she adds. "We all make a difference."


Taking Charge of Your Learning

There is growing recognition that staff development for paraeducators can be key to increasing the success of the students they work with.

Here are some examples of topics for paraprofessional staff development:

  • Understanding the rights of children and parents
  • Learning about diversity and cultural heritages
  • Learning the history of special education laws and current federal and state mandates
  • Understanding the distinction between the roles of teachers and paraeducators
  • Assisting children to cultivate self-esteem and interpersonal skills
  • Communicating effectively with team members, students and parents
  • Managing stress
  • Learning skills for time management

Dealing With ESEA

The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) may be on the books, but that doesn't mean support professionals are on their own as they work to meet the federal law's new requirements.

ESEA, also known as the No Child Left Behind Act, outlines specific qualifications for paraprofessionals who work in Title I-funded programs. These paras must have a high school diploma and either an associate's degree, two years of college, or a passing score on a state or local assessment that demonstrates their ability to assist with instruction in reading, writing, and math. Newly hired paraprofessionals must meet the requirements immediately, while those hired before Jan. 8, 2002, have until 2006.

Among NEA members, 66 percent of paraprofessionals have less than a two-year degree, according to a 2002 NEA ESP Membership Study.

How are local associations helping their paraprofessional members meet the federal requirements? Here's a look:

NEW JERSEY: In New Jersey's Trenton Paraprofessional Association (TPA), where about 75 percent of the local's 300 members currently do not meet the education requirements of ESEA, association leaders arranged for several two- and four-year colleges to provide classes at a local high school.

TPA also bargained tuition reimbursement into its contract. The district pays tuition expenses up front, so the paraprofessionals never pay anything out of pocket. The local also organized a workshop to help those paraprofessionals who return to college.

NEW MEXICO: The Classified School Employees Council of Las Cruces, New Mexico, secured additional education for its paraprofessionals. The local worked with the Las Cruces Public Schools, Dona Ana Branch Community College, and New Mexico State University to create a "career ladder" for paraprofessionals, says Irma Valdespino, president of the local. The school district pays tuition for paras who pursue an associate's degree at the community college. Paras then can apply those credits toward a bachelor's degree at New Mexico State University, where the school district also covers the cost of tuition and books.

Paraprofessionals who complete 60 credit hours advance on the salary schedule as well, says Milas McLeod, a middle school paraprofessional and vice president of the local Association. And in 2003, the local will bargain for additional compensation to reflect the new standards paraprofessionals must meet.

"To retain these people the district will have to restructure the salary scale," McLeod says. "As people get better educated, school officials are going to have to pay better."

NORTH CAROLINA: Members of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) turned their state paraprofessional assessment into an organizing tool.

Through its Center for Teaching and Learning, NCAE offers local and regional workshops to prepare paraprofessionals for WorkKeys, the assessment selected by the state department of education for ESEA.

The Association offers the workshops only to NCAE members, so UniServ directors and local presidents publicize them during membership recruitment drives, says Angela Farthing, manager of the Center for Teaching and Learning. ESP membership has increased 25 percent since the workshops started in August 2002, she says.

More than 60 percent of paraprofessionals who complete the workshops pass WorkKeys the first time, Farthing says. Those who don't, receive remediation or attend additional review sessions.

WANT MORE ABOUT ESEA? NEA has developed an ESEA and Paraprofessionals site where you can find answers to frequently asked questions, checklists and steps you can take right now to get informed about how the law affects you, and links to other resources. =

Paraeducator Web Resources

The NEA Paraeducator Handbook  provides an overview of information about key issues related to supporting paraeducators, including: building an awareness and appreciation of paraeducator roles and responsibilities; representing paraeducators in the work place; being aware of laws and regulations affecting Paraeducators; ensuring appropriate training and supervision; and providing ongoing professional development.

The NEA Paraeducator Handbook: Providing Ongoing Professional Development -- This section in the above handbook provides guidance and examples of paraeducator professional development programs.

Results-Oriented Job Descriptions: How Paraeducators Help Students Achieve -- This NEA manual outlines the process by which new ROJDs can be written to help paras achieve recognition of the vital roles they pay, respect for their professionalism, job security, and equitable pay.

Roles for Education Paraprofessionals -- This is a publication of the U.S. Department of Education.

Let's Team Up-- The NEA Professional Library has released a new edition of Let's Team Up! A Checklist for Paraeducators, Teachers, and Principals. This unique checklist is written to help paraeducators, teachers, and principals understand their roles and responsibilities as they work together. The book includes practical suggestions for paraeducators on clarifying their jobs and their relationships with students and school staff. You can order a copy for $5.50 by calling 800/229-4200 or order online.

National Clearinghouse for Paraeducator Resources -- Site includes full-text resources; abstracts from ERIC Database; paraeducator-to-teacher career ladder programs; and an electronic discussion forum on paraeducators.

National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals -- This site addresses policy questions and other needs of the field, provides technical assistance and shares information about policy questions, management practices, regulatory procedures, and training models that will enable administrators and staff-developers to improve the recruitment, deployment, supervision, and career development of paraprofessionals.

Project PARA -- The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) offers free online training for paraprofessionals. Project PARA is a self-study program paras can complete on their own or with a local school district. The program includes units on classroom organization and management; instructional skills; behavior management; effective communication with students, teachers, and other professionals; and special education programs and procedure. If paras enroll with a local school, then results from the program are Emailed to an instructor or mentor provided by the school. This instructor provides the participants with feedback and monitors their progress. Paraprofessionals also can use the resources on their own, although UNL cannot provide feedback or support.

U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook on Teacher Assistants provides information on the jobs, working conditions, training, job outlook and earnings of paraeducators.

Designing State and Local Policies for the Professional Development of Instructional Paraeducators ( PDF140K, 42pgs.) -- This report published by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's Program and Planning Development is a general guide to state and local education agencies that are designing policies for paraeducator development. Existing programs that demonstrate the key elements of effective paraeducator development are highlighted. Promising programs in the states of Iowa and Washington are described in some detail. Resources for possible standards and guidelines are suggested for states and local educational agencies exploring how to appropriately train their paraprofessionals. Information about post-secondary educational programs and the current scope of paraprofessional training and employment are also presented.

Guide to Developing Paraprofessional to Teacher Toolkit ( PDF336, 46pgs.) -- This guide discusses the value of paraeducator-toteacher programs; obstacles paraeducators face in becoming teachers; important elements of effective programs; what is involved in staff and recruiting participants; and how to build support for a program.

Roles for Education Paraprofessionals in Effective Schools: An Idea Book -- Roles for Education Paraprofessionals in Effective Schools: An Idea Book offers decision makers, program planners, and educators an overview of strategies that can enhance the contributions of paraprofessionals to school and classroom effectiveness. The report presents profiles of several innovative and effective programs that focus on the work of paraprofessionals and that offer them work-related opportunities for advancement.

ESEA (No Child Left Behind Act):

ESEA and Paraprofessionals -- This section of NEA's ESP Web site provides information about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as The No Child Left Behind Act, as well as tips for educational staff and supporters on proactive ways of responding. Brochures are available specifically for paraeducators, administrators, teachers, and local leaders, in HTML, Word (.doc) and PDF format.

ESEA on the Web -- The U.S. Department of Education maintains a website dedicated to the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act for parents and the general public. The site includes an overview of the law's requirements in text form and as a PowerPoint presentation. The site also offers a glossary of terms, fact sheets, an online newsletter, and links to other useful websites.

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and Special Education:

The NEA Web site has a section devoted to Special Education and the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

Special Education Resources on the Internet is a collection of resources of interest to those involved in the fields related to Special Education.

The Council of Educators for Students with Disabilities provides an Overview of Section 504 of IDEA.

The Web sites of these organizations contain good resources on IDEA and working with students with diabilities:

More NEA Resources for Paraeducators

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