The Role of the Paraprofessional and the Special Education Teacher

Let me start by saying that some of the best people I have ever worked with are paraprofessionals. The dedication, patience, knowledge, and commitment of most para’s is unsurpassed by anyone.  I know para’s that have made the difference between leaning and participating and passively sitting and sleeping. I have known para’s that have literally saved children from committing suicide. I have had para’s that worked through their lunch, came in early and stayed late with no compensation. I have also known para’s that have cracked the communication code and taught skills to students that others had “written off” as not being able to learn.  The role of the paraprofessional is highly valued by teachers, administrators, students, and parents!

With this in mind, one must realize that there is no other situation in teaching like that of the paraprofessional and the special education teacher.  With seemingly blurry lines of role, supervision, training, and responsibilities, paraprofessionals and special education teachers can become very frustrated and resentful of each other if people are not careful.  Instead of being the much needed support person for a whole class or an individual student the paraprofessional can become a source of added stress and anxiety for a teacher. The worst part of this problem is the damage that can be done to the classroom environment and the students’ success.  Having a paraprofessional in your classroom doesn’t have to be this way, however.  The role of the paraprofessional can be very valuable when a special education teacher understands how to supervise and utilize the person that is hired to assist.

         Let’s be honest, no one, and I mean no one, is prepared to supervise another adult or in some cases many adults in their teacher preparation program.  As an undergraduate you take classes in instruction, reading, math, if your lucky classroom management and behavior, but you do not take any classes on supervision of paraprofessionals.  When you walk into your first classroom you are handed a caseload of students and told that you have x number of paraprofessionals to assist you.  Either the para’s that you are given have been in the school district longer than you or they are brand new to the position.  Both cause the teacher different but equally challenging problems. 

         If you are lucky enough to get a para that has been in the classroom or building that you are going into, then you have a leg up on knowing building procedures, insight on the general education teachers and students, and the unwritten rules that every school has.  However, along with that knowledge comes learned roles and habits that may not fit your plan for your classroom and students.  There is almost nothing harder for a new teacher than having another adult in your classroom telling you that things have never been done “that way” or that something was not going to work because last year’s teacher tried it and it failed.  To add to the difficulty, frequently, the para is old enough to be the teachers parent or in some cases grandparent. 

         In my first classroom I had six students with multiple disabilities and five paraprofessionals. Four of them were old enough to be my mother and one was almost the same age as my grandmother! One was an RN, one had years of experience as a paraprofessional, and the other three all had children. At the time, I was 25 and had just had my first child. It was my first job in a public school and I had never had to manage paraprofessionals before.  I had been in charge of an early intervention site with 120 kids and families that we serviced with another teacher, an OT, PT, and Speech therapists, however that did not prepare me very well to manage paraprofessionals!

 I was very lucky in many respects because 4 out of 5 of my para’s recognized that I was the classroom teacher and that I was in charge. I asked for their advice and opinion and they gave it to me willingly, however when I made a decision they did what I asked them to do.  I have to give them all the credit for their patience and generous attitudes with me.  They allowed me to make mistakes and learn how to do better with my management skills. The one paraprofessional that gave me trouble was a mom of 5 and was in her first year working as a para.  She and I butted heads a lot, primarily because she was looking at things like a mom and I was looking at things like a teacher.  The two are very different. A mom can be coddling and protective of her children. A teacher has to prepare her students to be as independent as possible, and to ask students to do things that are very hard for them.  Mom’s can say “It’s ok honey, you don’t have to do that. I will do it for you.” Teachers have to say “I know it’s hard and I will support you, but you have to learn how to do this yourself.”  Very different ways of looking at kids!  I tried very hard to explain to the para that difference, however I was not very successful.  She could not see how to be any different than a mom to the students.  She thought that I was too hard on them and that I was “mean” for pushing them to do more. (There is another blog post on this aspect of being a special ed. teacher that I will address at a later time!) Finally, it came down to her or me.  I had to have the last say on things in my classroom because I was the one that was responsible for their IEP’s. I answered to their parents and my administrators. I was the one that was going to take the heat if something went wrong or goals were not met.  She decided that the job was not a good fit for her and did not return the next year.

 I have to be honest and say I was relieved that she made the decision on her own.  I really was afraid to tackle the problem face on, so I was lucky.  If she had wanted to stay, I would have had to have had a very hard conversation with her to set boundaries and conditions for working with students and to adjust her willingness to follow my rules and procedures. 

Over the years I have learned some things that I think would be very helpful to teachers when managing paraprofessionals that I would like to share with you.

  1. It is your classroom, your rules.  Set that boundary first with everyone. Even if you have someone that is perfectly fine with following your rules and procedures.  Then if you have a new person come in, it is simply the way things are done in your room and with your students.
  2. Ask your paraprofessionals for their opinion and their ideas. Listen to them!  Any really good idea I ever got was from one of my para’s, and I will give them credit 100% of the time.
  3. Have their back no matter what.  I empowered my para’s to make decisions when they were supporting kids across many different environments, so if they made a mistake or a student did something unexpected, I had their back. I took responsibility. I NEVER threw one of my para’s “under the bus” EVER.  If the principal or another teacher came in with an issue about how something was handled by a para, I backed my para and told the person that I would speak to the para and we would make changes for the next time something like the current situation happened again.  The “buck” stops with you, always.  If the para knows you have her back, she will do a much better job for you and for the students.
  4. Explain why you are doing the things that you are doing. No, not in the heat of a moment, but as soon as you can.  When para’s understand why you are doing what you are doing they are much more likely to try to do what you are doing.  If you can explain something ahead of time, take the time to do it. You may think that you shouldn’t have to explain, and maybe you shouldn’t however the truth of the matter research tells us that most paraprofessionals do not have teaching degrees and they have little to no training. Many paraprofessionals are parents with parenting experience.  Explain to them about why you are doing what you are doing so they don’t misunderstand. If you expect them to use specific strategies then you have to teach them the strategies. People who are not taught what to do will do the best they can with what they know.
  5. Have regular staff meetings! This is an absolute must.  Even 15 minutes a week or once a month, whatever you can get, sit down and talk about the students and what is going on.  Talk about student behavior, goals, problems, successes, strategies, upcoming events, everything! This gives everyone a chance to voice opinions, share ideas, and support one another. 
  6. Have a communication center.  Someplace in your classroom where you can put information that can’t wait until a staff meeting.  Notes from parents, the office, general ed teachers. Schedule changes and individual student changes. Anything that impacts the student or para’s day or week.  Don’t pull surprises on people if you don’t have to. Then when the unexpected does happen, you will be met with a more receptive response.
  7. Advocate for professional development opportunities for paraprofessionals that relate to their jobs. The more training that para’s have the better paraprofessionals they are.  Professional development opportunities that offer new strategies for supporting students helps everyone in the school community.
  8. Finally, communicate with your para when there are issues as soon as they arise. Don’t avoid things because it makes you uncomfortable.  That only makes things worse when you do have to confront the problem. Para’s can feel like they have been set up or that you have been lying to them, and in reality you have been.  If you do the other things listed here, you will have established a supportive relationship with your paraprofessionals, so tackling issues together shouldn’t be such a big deal. 

Having paraprofessionals in your classroom can be one of the best things that can happen to you in your teaching career if you are willing to lead.  What I have given you here is only the tip of the iceberg when dealing with other adults in your room, however I hope it will at least give you a start on a path to successful leadership in your classroom.