Paraprofessionals: Schools growing their own teachers

I was in a school recently and had the chance to chat with several of that school’s paraprofessionals. They are called different names in different systems – paraeducator, teaching assistant, teacher’s aide, classroom assistant – but parapros are, in short, classroom teaching assistants that do not have their teaching certificate. They may be assigned to a single classroom, usually lower elementary, to assist the teacher in that classroom, or they might float between two classes or within a grade level. Some parapros are assigned to assist special education students in a classroom or grade level, and while that is their major responsibility, I tend to see parapros assisting other kids if their help is not needed by the special education student.

Parapros tend to do a myriad of things for the classroom and teacher, from teaching lessons to working with small groups of students to Xeroxing materials for the teacher. I have seen parapros used to substitute teach, when a teacher is absent, and they might oversee lunch, the playground during recess, and the melee that is the beginning and end of each school day.

Let me get back to that school that I was visiting and the parapros with which I talked, for what they told me was very different than what I often hear in other schools: Most parapros at this school were completing coursework and doing what they needed to do to become full-time teachers. They told me that their partner teacher, the school’s principal, and even the district were encouraging them on this path, in some cases the school giving them a little money for the coursework.

As I said before, I have rarely encountered this “grow-your-own” mentality; parapros in other schools that I have visited seemed not interested in becoming certified teachers, for whatever reason, or the school did not encourage them sufficiently to get on this path. To be honest, it always struck me as poor human capital management. Here already were teachers – not officially but they did some of the same work – who knew the school and school system and obviously had an interest in the world of teaching, given their choice to be a parapro. Why, in so many schools, was so little being done to move these educators into the certified ranks, to give the school and school district another pool of teachers?

Colleague David Ginsburg, who runs this consulting and coaching shop, writes this great blog,  and is in many, many schools each year, agrees that “paras should be viewed as potential teachers, and perhaps even hired on that basis if the applicant pool can support it.”

And David made the great point that regardless “whether paras have the desire/time/etc. to move up the ranks, it’s still incumbent on schools to support their professional development in their current positions – especially when those positions are so multi-faceted. A lot of paras have negative experiences in schools because they aren’t set up for success – not unlike what happens with many teachers too, of course – and are less likely to be drawn into teaching as a result.”

Obviously the school that I visited had hired well; it had hired parapros that wanted more than just that role, and it had created a system to ensure that, if they so desired, they could formally become teachers. This group with which I talked could not say enough about the respect they felt from the school and district – and I know, when these parapros get their teaching certificates, that the school and district will benefit greatly from a loyal and very happy new crop of teachers.

I got the school bus image here.

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