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What I Learned as a Paraprofessional
On my first day as a special education paraprofessional, I was “assigned to” Thomas. Lucky for me, after a couple weeks of this weird lady following him around, he got used to me. He liked being able to whisper to me in class, and he could always tell me what he thought the answer was, even if he wasn’t called on. What student doesn’t like immediate feedback all day? No need to stand on his chair and yell anymore, or run down the hall because he got sent out of class. I won’t deny that Thomas was still often very disruptive in class, and unstructured times were his Achilles heel. We would frequently spend a lot of time in a small office completing work when he couldn’t be in class. There were definite highlights of my day, but there were also many lows.
As soon as I walked into the school building with the label “paraprofessional,” the assumptions started. Teachers thought I must have just graduated from high school or had no experience with kids, or that I was just there to babysit an unruly student so the teachers could actually teach the rest of the class. Finally, there was the assumption that I made myself: that this job was easy.
It’s actually very difficult to sit and listen all day long. I had to step into a student’s shoes, and I have to say, it wasn’t easy. Sure, sometimes we did a few minute-long activities that got us out of our seats, and sometimes we did a science experiment. But from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., we sat. We listened. We wrote. Even though Thomas improved leaps and bounds, he still directed his anger at me when he didn’t get his way, and would get sent out of class. He would cry and yell at me in our little room. Thomas’ behavior was my only charge, and as such, my only way to judge my success and failure.
The invisibility to the other adults was hard to get used to, and the rollercoaster ride with Thomas was emotionally draining. Above all else, the hardest part was leaving. I didn’t leave the school or even the grade. I took a job as a full-time special educator and was no longer next to Thomas in class every day, all day. I wasn’t in his ear reminding him that even if he wasn’t called on, he mattered. And even though I wouldn’t let him tell the whole class a joke that he just had to tell, he was still funny. But without that consistency and predictability, he fell apart. He began getting sent out of class again, and feeling anger that he couldn’t process alone. I watched him fall apart from a distance because he wasn’t my “assignment” anymore, and I had so much to do for my own class. I tried to explain that he didn’t need me as much anymore, and that, hey, I was still in his math class every day. But it wasn’t enough. Thomas transferred schools a few months later, and we lost touch.
I’m not saying every paraprofessional is perfect and they deserve a trophy tomorrow. But do take a closer look. Ask what they know and what they see in your school, and start to challenge your own assumptions of the role. Being a paraprofessional was the hardest job I’ve ever had, and it didn’t include any of the things we regularly consider difficult from a teaching perspective. Even acknowledging these challenges is a step in the right direction for schools with a paraprofessional in the building. You might even have one that deserves some well-needed recognition.