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Paraeducators: Key to Classroom Operations

By John Rosales

While working closely with students, teachers and parents, paraeducators find time to perform a variety of duties. One of the best things about being a paraeducator, says Julie Harrington, is working one on one with students.

“Paraeducators are able to build strong bonds with children because we work so closely with them,” says Harrington, a special education paraeducator 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 they were able to accomplish even the simplest of tasks.”

Many students that Harrington works with have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism or other disabilities.

“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 a child how to write her name or count by five’s, or how to brush their teeth, use deodorant, and fix their hair.”

While she devotes much personal attention to the academic and personal needs of students, Harrington also finds time to arrange classroom desks, gather reading and writing supplies for the day’s lessons, assist children off buses, and unpack book bags.

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

“Para's 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 the go-to people at a school. From preparing learning materials and implementing behavior modification plans to supervising playground activity and even becoming familiar with sign language to work more effectively with deaf students, paraeducators exemplify a versatility that makes it difficult to pinpoint what they do because they do so much.

Linda Howard is a library paraeducator at Clarkdale Jerome School (K-8) in Clarkdale, Arizona. As the only paid 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.

“In the computer lab, the teacher brings students to me and then leaves,” Howard says. “So I really have them alone.”

In the past, many paraeducators received minimal training. Today, paraeducators are required to complete rigorous state and local exams. Some of the tests evaluate math, reading, and writing ability. The completion of additional certification exams and other professional training is also required for the job, though requirements vary from state to state.

Education requirements also vary, but almost 30 percent of paraeducators have a two-year degree, with 20 percent having earned a bachelor’s, and 5 percent a master’s or higher degree. On the job, 83 percent of paraeducators have job responsibilities promoting school safety, while 91 percent 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 the teacher regarding student behavioral skills and academic achievement.

“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 sensation of seeing students learn their lessons. When she reads to them, she often uses fun props and will even deepen her voice 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 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.”

However, if a student becomes disruptive Krampitz will then have to restrain the student as needed for fear of them harming themselves or others.

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

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 remain mindful of what other students are doing so the teacher can focus on teaching.

“I provide an extra set of eyes and ears to all things going on in the classroom,” she says.

The National Education Association categorizes paraeducators as education support professionals (ESPs). In addition to being categorized as “paraeducators,” their job titles include instructional and noninstructional assistants, teachers’ and program aides, preschool caregivers and school monitors, crossing guards and library aides, like Howard.

While Howard does not have her associate’s degree, she has taken a high number of college courses on children’s literature, management, leadership, and recordkeeping.

“I may be classified (ESP), but I have a huge folder showing certificates from all the classes I have taken since coming to this job,” she says. “I might have the fattest folder in the office for all the classes that I take to better myself.”