I’ve been really fortunate to have worked with some wonderful paraprofessions at different times in my teaching career. These men and women made a huge a difference to the lives of the students in my class. For that matter, they’ve made a huge difference to my life as well.
Early in my career I worked with a para-educator whom I’ll call Linda. Linda’s assignment was to give support to a handicapped student who was integrated into one of my grade twelve class. The student whom I’ll call Christine was so severely handicapped by cerebral palsy that she had to be strapped into her electric wheel chair for her own safety. Christine could barely move her hand to guide the small joy stick that let her operate her wheelchair, and she communicated mostly by pointing her hand to the appropriate Bliss symbol that was printed on a board in front of her. Linda cared for Christine through out the day from the time she arrived in the morning before school started to when she left at the end of the day when school was over. At lunch time , Linda fed Christine and helped her with her with personal hygiene.
At the beginning of the school year when I first met Christine, I was at a loss what to do. To be honest, I panicked. How could I teach Christine in a regular classroom. I ‘d never taught a student with Christine’s challenges. I’d never taught a student who communicated using Bliss symbols. But, I had taught lots of student’s with a smile like Christine’s. Christine’s smile told me a lot, and Linda told me the rest. Linda taught me which accommodations to use to help Christine be as successful as possible in class. Really thanks to Linda, both Christine and I were able to do the best we could in that class.
Most of the para-educators I’ve worked with recently have been trained as child care workers and have extensive experience working in group homes with various troubled, troublesome and troubling kids before working in schools. Most teachers receive different training than child care workers. A teacher’s training has to do with getting the subject matter across to students. Oh, sure we have to know how to use strategies that will engage the students in our classrooms and maintain an environment that is conducive to learning , but mostly we’re taught how to teach kids who are coping fairly well in the classroom. Special education teachers like me , who specialize in behaviour do get additional training on how to deal with students who need more support. But the training is different.
When I taught young offenders in the open custody facility I worked with child care workers, and they did have a different focus . It seemed to me that for child care workers it wasn’t all about the three R’s, it was about supporting kids while they learned to make better choices for better outcomes in their lives. The 3 R’s was only one aspect of a kid’s life. Teachers on the other hand are trained to be concerned primarily with the 3 R’s and are encouraged to set boundaries that limit their concern to the 3 R’s and not to the student’s life outside of school. Now of course I’m generalizing here. There’s always the exception. I know that. The point I want to make here is that the teacher and the para-educator can work together as a team so that the student can be successful in and out of the classroom.
At our school the para-educators whom I’ll call Jack and Jill are not necessarily assigned to a particular student, although they could be. That was the case last year. Jack was assigned to be with a particular student for the entire school day. But, that’s unusual. There were some pretty heavy duty concerns regarding this student, and Jack was there to see that all went well. Jack and Jill also go into classrooms from time to time to support students who need additional support to get over a particularly bumping time in their lives. The support is usually to help students deal with the stress of their lives in a more appropriate ways. Believe, some of these kids have huge issues in their lives, many of which are not of their own making. Jack or Jill will also escort students from one class to the next, if that support is needed. Occasionally, students new to the school are just overwhelmed by the size of the building and have difficulty finding their classes. I have a student like that this year in one of my classes. He just can’t seem to find his way around. I’m sure that will change as the semester progresses, but right now he’s very grateful for Jack’s support.
Jack and Jill have their own room, the Contact Room where teachers can send students who choose to act inappropriately despite the repeated interventions by the teacher. Jack and Jill help these students learn to accept responsibility for their behaviours and help them set goals for the future. They involve the parents of these students as well. In the Contact Room model, the classroom teachers and Jack and Jill are still a team working together for the benefit of students. They’re just in different locations and communicate via the telephone.
I’ve been using the term para-educators to refer to Teaching Assistants or Educational Assistants. Teaching Assistants or Educational Assistants are the terms I’m familiar with, and ones we still use in our board, as far as I know. I have to thank Christopher Phillips for sending me the link to the National Resource Centre for Paraprofessionals where I learned about the term Para-educators. I guess the language in education is changing in order to be more precise. The term “at-risk student” has been replaced by the term “student in need of additional support”. Although, I have to confess that sometimes I still use the term “at-risk kids”. Old habits die hard, but they do die.
I encourage you to go to the NRCP web site even if you aren’t a para-educator because there’s lots of interesting information there. I was intrigued by the slide presentation from last year’s conference. There’s lots to be learned from exploring the site. I’ve been only able to skim the surface thus far, but I intend to take the time and explore the site in more depth, and I’ m certainly going to share it with Jack and Jill when I get to school tomorrow.