The power of the paraprofessional

Being a teacher of students with disabilities, I work with a lot of paraprofessionals (or teacher’s aides).  A paraprofessional can make or break your experience in the classroom.

One of the hardest things to do as a first year teacher is to come into a classroom of adults (usually older than you), who have been working together and in the same school for years, and to have to ask them to do things your way, or to at least try.  Many are resistant to try new things or you may here a lot of “that’s not how we do things here”.  So what does a new teacher do?

I got very lucky.  I had an amazingly strong paraprofessional my first year.  I’ve heard other people say she was hard to work with.  So how did I make it work?  I tried my best to appreciate where she was coming from and her level of expertise.  I asked for her advice and took it most times, or would at least try.  I would ask her advice and say, “What do you think if we tried this?”  Because I approached her as an equal, we were able to bond and create a level of trust between us.  I knew I could rely on her to take over if I got pulled out of the room.  I could trust her on field trips (hell, I haven’t gone on a field trip since she became a teacher.  She planned every trip I went on for 3 years).  We developed a relationship based on mutual trust and understanding and what was most important I think is that she saw me try.  She saw me come in every day with new ideas and she saw me pick myself up every single time those ideas failed.  She saw me break to.  More times than I’d like to admit.  The DOE has claimed several boxes of snot and teared filled tissues from me.  I’m eternally grateful to her and the knowledge she passed on to me and I enjoy sharing our stories as teachers now.  But what happens to the teachers that aren’t so lucky?

As things stand in education right now in New York City, paraprofessionals are not rated on their performance in the classroom. (This is what comes up when you Google “paraprofessional accountability NYC”). Teachers, however, are.  Teachers are currently not only rated on their own performance but on the performance of their paraprofessionals.  This could be a good thing.  As a teacher/leader, it is my responsibility to engage my paraprofessionals in the learning that is happening in my room.  I am responsible for asking them do perform certain tasks.  That’s part of my job.  I understand and value that.  Not only is paraprofessional management essential to my job as a classroom teacher, but it’s a great skill to have as a professional in general.  Delegating was never something I was good at but over the last six years I’ve learned how to ask for help or how to ask my staff to perform tasks I, in a different situation, would have no problem doing myself.  Again, I am lucky.  I have worked with some amazing staff members who have no problem helping me out, who take pride in what they are doing, or who at the bare minimum like the students they work with.  What about those staff members who don’t?  Who don’t help out no matter how respectfully the teacher tries to engage them?  Who don’t take initiative or who don’t perform some of the basic responsibilities of their job?  Who don’t respond to the modeling and direction you as a teacher give them?  What happens then?

I’ll give you an example.  I was being observed back in October working with a larger than normal group of students (for a special education teacher, I’m talking about 20 students).  We were participating in the Hour of Code.  I had a new paraprofessional helping me out in the club.  She had only been working a few weeks.  She was still getting to know the students.  We were having some MAJOR connectivity issues (a whole other blog post for another day) and so she was sitting with her group of students trying to help them connect.  When things weren’t connecting she was sitting and waiting to see what would happen.  Could she have been asking them questions?  Sure.  Could I have asked her to engage with them on a social level?  Sure.  She was still finding her feet and I was trying frantically to get at least ONE computer up and running so I didn’t have a mutiny on my hands.  My principal walked in to observe.  Everything went as well as can be expected when nothing is working.  When I went to have my post observation conference my principal had nothing but good things to say.  Her one major comment was, “well I gave you an effective here because Ms. ___ was just sitting there waiting.  Why wasn’t she doing anything?”  I explained that she was waiting to see if the connection was working and that she was doing exactly as I asked her to do.  “Well she just looked like she was sitting there so I gave you an effective.”  Ok.  I’m not harping on the issue that my personal rating dropped because I’m obsessed with my score and the appearance of perfection (that answer was probably different several years and no anti-anxiety medication ago).  I’m harping on it because I was rated on someone else’s behavior.  Suppose I HAD asked her several times to engage with the students in the group.  Suppose I had modeled some questioning techniques.  Now suppose I had also met with her several times during class meetings and expressed a need for her to do certain things with students.  Suppose I had all of this documented with her signature.  Sounds like I’ve done everything I should do to engage this person in my classroom.  Can I reach inside her head and make her want do as I’ve asked?  Or force her to take my suggestions?  Or force her to perform her duties?  No.  But even if I had gone through all of those steps, my rating would still be effected by the behavior of this person.

What happens then, when you as the teacher do everything you’re supposed to do?  When you’ve had the meetings, you have the documentation, you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do?  The answer, is nothing.  Nothing happens.  I have a friend who has done just that.  For three years she has modeled, documented, spoken to, had meetings with, asked for assistance from administration and the school coach, about a paraprofessional who, for whatever reason, does not do her job.  This person has watched as students have run out of the classrooms.  She has watched as students have stolen things from other students, has watched the teacher struggle to help a student in crisis, and has sat there.  This teacher has continually been rated lower due to this paras behavior.  Administrations only answer is “well you haven’t done what you need to with her” but then they deny offering more help.

Today, I feel a line was crossed (and was the catalyst for writing this).  This same teacher  (let’s call her Maria for the purposes of this story) was walking in the hall with her students, taking the students up from their bus.  Another student came off a bus and the teacher was asked if she could watch this student go upstairs to her class.  When she looked, back to see the student, she noticed a paraprofessional was with the student.  (As a teacher, we need to have eyes on our students at all times.  After the tragedy of Avonte Oquendo, teachers of students with disabilities are especially careful to make sure we have our eyes constantly on our students.  Not a minute goes by during my day when I am not counting.  Constantly counting.  This teacher looked back, saw the para with the student and for confirmation asked, “Ms. ___, you have this student yes?”  She replied, “Yes”.  The teacher in this story has a crisis paraprofessional (let’s call him Matt) in her room.  He was with her class when this event happened and what happened next is unbelievably unprofessional.

The following took place in the stair way and the hall way, in front of students and staff.  (All names have been changed).

Maria: Ms. ___, You have this student yes?

Para 1: Yes.  Thank you.

Matt: Turn around and mind your own damn business.  You don’t need to be concerned about anything but what’s happening in front of you.

Maria: Excuse me?

Matt: You’re blocking the hall.  You better get out of my way and keep walking and mind your own damn business.

Maria: Matt, I was speaking to ‘Para 1’.  I was checking to make sure she had this student.  Please don’t talk to me that way, I don’t appreciate it.

Matt: (voice escalating)  I SAID MIND YOUR OWN DAMN BUSINESS.  I’LL TALK TO YOU ANY DAMN WAY I PLEASE.

At this point, Matt shoved his way past the teacher into the classroom.

The teacher was visibly shaken and upset.  She consulted with some of the other teachers who heard the incident and consulted with our school based mentor.  The night before our assistant principal told the teachers that if we have issues with our staff, we should write them up and she said nothing can happen from an administrative perspective unless we write them up.

In consultation with the school based mentor, the mentor told her to just leave it be.  “Nothing will happen but a slap on the wrist and saying something will only make it worse.”

The assistant principal talked to Matt for 2 minutes and sent him back to the room.  Maria went and spoke to the assistant principal.  The AP told her nothing could happen.  Now here’s the kicker.  This man is childhood friends with our principal.  And there in lies the problem.  No man in my building can do wrong.  They are all tied in in the intricate web of old friendships and family.  This teacher has been cursed at in front of staff and students.  I’ve been sexually harassed multiple times.  Nothing happens.  Nothing.

So what do we do?  Perhaps there’s an option I haven’t fully explored.  Nor are all the details of our placement brought to light in the last 1738 words.  It’s a very complicated system we are entwined in.  It’s complicated and convoluted and filled with more twists and turns and incestuous relationships than Game of Thrones.

The point in relaying all of this is just to say, what can we as teachers do to move our profession forward while finding a way to hold other adults responsible for their actions.  If there is no system of accountability for these professionals, what can we do?  Paraprofessionals have a job and earn money.  Most other professions have accountability structures built in.  Performance reviews.  Performance based pay.  Etc.  Education for those not teaching, does not.  Hopefully one day this will change.

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