I was walking down the street the other day when I ran into two people who used to make me smile everyday! One of them was a paraprofessional (I’ll call him Superman) who I had the privilege of working with for two years. The other (I’ll call her Wonder Woman) was a paraprofessional who I got very close with but sadly did not get the chance to share a classroom with. Superman was a role model for me in his ability to develop strong relationships with his students, yet always focus on fostering maximum independence. Wonder Woman’s dedication and selflessness made her a major inspiration for me while I was developing my teaching practice. Seeing them reminded me that I have not yet written about the power of paraprofessionals.
Sadly, so many teachers have had negative experiences working with paraprofessionals. I lucked out because in my first few years of teaching, I worked at a school that had some incredible paras. I spent three years as a special education teacher in an inclusion program for students with motor impairments. Each year I worked with a team of between 5 and 8 adults. The team was comprised of two teachers, at least one student teacher and 3-5 paras. While this could be overwhelming at times, building a community of adults was such a valuable force in the classroom. It gave children a chance to work with various adult personalities and it made our teaching stronger. Building a strong team takes work though!
Sometimes paraprofessionals are assigned to a classroom to offer support all of the students, but many paras are assigned to support a specific student. As a teacher it is important that you understand your paras role. Is it to support one or all students? Is it to assist a student with mobility, health or academics? These are the questions that a teacher needs to ask!
If you work with a para who is assigned to one specific child, don’t ask or expect them to be an assistant teacher…let them focus so that they can be successful at their job! It would be like asking a second grade teacher to teach one section of eighth grade science during their lunch break. We see the most growth when we are given the opportunity to focus. Whether you are working with a para for one student or all students, it is crucial to develop a respectful relationship and to make sure that you offer the guidance they need to be successful. Here are some tips to building a great relationship with your para(s):
- Have lunch with your para as often as possible. Talking about things that are not school-related will allow you to build a friendship that can be incredibly valuable for the classroom community.
- Invite your para to co-teach a lesson if they are an expert in a field!
- Always remember that your success is intertwined with the success of your para(s).
- If you find that your para lacks focus or is not doing their job, have an open and productive conversation about it. Offer your guidance. Sometimes making a checklist of daily tasks for yourself and your para can help build strong routines.
- Use theme days and special events as a time to build community. We always dressed up as a team for theme days. I remember one year for book character day we dressed up as the crew from Little Red Riding Hood.
I’m not going to stand here and say every paraprofessional is a miracle worker. That would be like saying ever teacher is a superhero and regrettably, that is not true. However, there are paraprofessionals out there who are miracle workers in the right environment. As teachers it is our job to nurture the adult relationships in our classroom communities and to do whatever we can to support those around us.