Don’t be jealous: I have the very best paraprofessionals in the world. They know exactly what to do even when I am not there. They are like an extension of my brain and I could not do my job without them. My classroom runs like a well-oiled machine. But, it has not always been that way.
As a self-contained classroom teacher for the last 10 years, I have gone through a number of paraprofessionals. Each of them has had unique strengths and weaknesses (the same as classroom teachers, really), and each of them has had unique passions and interests. But, what is the secret to working with paraprofessionals in the special education classroom? What is the best way to think about the teacher/paraprofessional relationship? Here are five things that I have gleaned from my experience of working with paraprofessionals over the years.
Paraprofessionals are there to support the teacher, but they need just as much support.
There is a serious problem if you believe that paraprofessionals are “just” there to support the teacher. In almost every school district, paraprofessionals get paid very little compared to the classroom teacher. However, they are, for all intents and purposes, teachers too, which means that they need support from the classroom teacher in the form of open communication, a respectful attitude and clear expectations.
Paraprofessionals should be treated like the teacher’s partner, not the teacher’s employee.
The truth is that paraprofessionals don’t work for the teacher; rather, they work with the teacher. They are equal stakeholders in the classroom and are invested in seeing their students succeed. Sometimes the teacher and paraprofessional will have differing perspectives on a strategy. It is always best to talk through this process to avoid miscommunication, which may lead to frustration for one or both parties.
Allow paraprofessionals to shine at what they are good at.
I think that in any working relationship, it is important to get to know the strengths and interests of the people around you. It can be easy to focus on what people are NOT doing correctly instead of what they do very well. At least at first, it’s best to let paraprofessionals take on things that allow them put their strengths to use. Their insight is valuable and teachers need to listen to them. There is always room for improvement, so create an environment where it is okay to make mistakes.
Celebrate with paraprofessionals like they are family.
Most special education teachers spend more time with the paraprofessionals in their classrooms than they do with their families! Working in special education can have its challenges. Families stick together and support each other, and paraprofessionals and teachers should be no different. Break bread together, have each other over for dinner and share your life with your co-workers. Life is better together.
Paraprofessionals are the teacher’s eyes and hands in inclusive classrooms.
In certain instances, paraprofessionals work with students disabilities in the general education environment. It is important that these paraprofessionals know how the teacher wants them to support each student in the classroom; however, the teacher needs to share not only what he or she wants the paraprofessional to do, but also why the paraprofessional needs to do it. By giving the reason behind his or her decisions, a teacher can establish mutual trust.
Back to my paraprofessionals: I can’t take credit for how awesome they are. But, I will say that developing deep and lasting relationships with each of the people I work with has many benefits. If you are an educator, I trust that you can experience this as well.