Renay has been up to her ears in work lately. So the piles around ParaEducate look a lot different than they have in the past. There are a lot of things being cut, lots of lamination, perhaps more traditional lamination than in years past.
But Renay was ruminating on Monday about generational divides and how complex life is as a Special Education teacher, overseeing paraeducators and not always being their actual supervisor. Some districts place the principals in charge, though the schedule is driven by the needs of the students as lines in the IEP.
There are also other things that come into play. More than once Renay has heard, “I wish the district would pay us what we do. We handle a lot and aren’t paid well for it.” And this is true—many districts in the United States do severely underpay their paraeducators. Partly because many are undertrained. And the expectation or understanding of “learning on the job”.
And the real issue: how to replace what is lost when a paraeducator leaves a placement after years of service. It is not just the value added. It is the loss of institutional memory. Today technology, one might believe that all institutional memory may be just digital—it is not. What a paraeducator brings whether they have been in a classroom setting for a year, for two years, for twenty years, all that is gone. Not just the names of people who used to work there. Not the pain of how it felt the first time a student hit that person and how to reapproach that same student the next day. Not the mentoring that naturally comes around. All of that gone, built in one person. Nobody clearly asked one person to have that and be that. But when one stays for a long time, skills are grown. The strategies are learned. Even when they are not ‘new’ strategies like counting to ten before asking the same question again. Or calling a ‘walk’ a ‘stroll’, knowing how to teach letter sounds to increase reading skills, or even knowing all the trains that used the HO gauge.
Too often, the result is a paraeducator leaving to another district that “pays more”. Some actually do pay more than others, but there are tradeoffs. Pay is certainly an incentive to many individuals. But it does not compensate for the losses. The challenge is, unlike any other work division: most school districts do not just hand out raises like in the corporate world. Raises come once a year for education if that. Most districts no longer have a cost of living (COLA) raise. The year wait makes it tough to have that flexibility one might need. And there are only so many jobs a person can work. Imagine adding on paying for children, pets, car insurance, and other life challenges? Renay had done a lot of those. And it was not always easy.
How do we honor the work that paraeducators provide?
Stay Left and Right
Moving around as a paraeducator within the classroom is sometimes a balancing act. Just like the classroom teacher, physical proximity to a student, or lack of proximity. A watchful glance, a tap in the direction of attention for focus.
But when one is a paraeducator and must be dedicated in the interest of one specific student’s education, life looks and feels a lot different. The pace may be slower, the attentions may be split.
Some reminders if you are a 1:1, or assigned to a specific individual:
- Be mindful of the needs of your student. If they need something and it cannot wait, let the teacher know. But if your student needs something and you can either quietly get it yourself or have the student wait: let the student wait.
- Follow up with the teacher on things that are working.
- Communicate things you would like to see changed, not just with a specific service provider. If you do not know the student’s AAC, ask for training on that system.
- Remember, you are there just as much to be an advocate for the student, but do not advocate on your island. You are a part of the IEP team. The teachers (general education and special education) want to hear from you.
- Remember at the end of the day your rapport with the student is what will keep that student coming back. Some students know you are their safe person and you are able to ‘take’ their anger or confusion about things going on in their world.
Moving around the classroom also gives the student a chance to have independence. Backing away and giving a count of fifteen or even a whole minute is a great chance for the student to try and use a strategy they have been working with you on. Watching them flounder can be hard, but it is the best way to know they are learning.
Do you have any comments about this month’s blog? Do you have a question for us? Would you like to have an opportunity to pilot some materials at your campus? Find ParaEducate online here, here, here, here, and on our website. ParaEducate is a company providing materials, information, and strategies for people working in special education inclusion settings for grades K-12. ParaEducate, the blog, is published once a month during the academic school year. ParaEducate shares their findings at conferences, through their books, and their academic adaptations.