Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities

The Paraeducator’s Role on Education Teams: Lessons from Experience


Chris Harkness is a Paraprofessional with Tri-District 6067, Maplewood, Minnesota.

I cannot say that I am entirely comfortable with the title “paraeducator.” In the early days of my career in Winona, Minnesota, that school district stopped calling us “aides” and awarded us the title “instructional support staff.” In Minnesota these days we are typically called “paraprofessionals” or “educational assistants.” Currently in my 19th year of working with educational professionals to facilitate student learning, I do not think of myself as an aide and certainly not as a teacher; nevertheless, I am an educator and I do consider myself a professional. However, this article is not meant to rehash the identity crisis that has plagued our profession. My goal is to offer my perspective on the paraeducator role, and to call attention to some of the logistics of providing qualified non-licensed educational support for students with special needs.

A Common Role in Diverse Settings

One of the reasons it is difficult to choose a one-size-fits-all name for the individuals who help learners learn and teachers teach is the broad array of learner needs and teacher expectations. Found not only in classrooms, paraeducators work in virtually every learning environment from infant care and family respite to adult vocational programs and group homes. Despite the differences in our duties, paraeducators do share a prescribed role. Quite simply, the paraeducators’ role is to work under the direction of licensed professionals to help students succeed in their assigned tasks. This role is fulfilled in the following ways: a) supporting the teaching professionals by following individual education plans and specific directives, b) modeling expected behaviors in all encounters with students, c) fostering increasing levels of student independence wherever possible, and d) acting as liaisons between the students, instructional staff, and parents wherever necessary. My experience as a paraeducator has been in classrooms pre-kindergarten through grade 12. Therefore, this article centers on this particular learning environment. Still, it is important to remember that any student’s location, whether the classroom, the home, the worksite, or the community, becomes an environment where learning and growth are anticipated and expected.Because we work in close proximity to students and likely have more individual and small group time with them than teachers do, paraeducators educate students in ways generally not afforded teachers. In the classroom, teachers deliver general instruction and direction, and answer questions posed by students with the courage and ability to ask them. Paraeducators, on the other hand, watch for more subtle signals of comprehension or misunderstanding and step in to clarify, interpret, and redirect where students need extra support. Students benefit from this more individualized attention from an adult who commands the respect of a teacher while acting on their behalf as learners. Teachers appreciate not having to divide their attention into so many pieces and parents take comfort in the knowledge that their children’s needs will not be overlooked in diverse and crowded classrooms. Finally, administrators are better able to fill staffing positions in times and places where teachers and dollars are scarce.

The Challenge to Build Effective Teacher/Paraeducator Teams

Defining the paraeducator role on paper is the easy part. Making it work in the classroom is the greatest challenge educator teams face. Yet, one could argue that effectively balanced teacher/paraeducator teams are the key to opening doors to success for students with special needs. Teams become most effective when the expected learner outcomes are understood, and the instructional roles each member plays are clear. Good communication is crucial in teacher/paraeducator teams.Communicating in education settings is challenging. While teachers tend to stay in one classroom or setting over time, paraeducators often move among various settings, working with a variety of students and staff. Very few teachers and paraeducators enjoy the luxury of common planning time, so verbal exchanges between them are often brief and sometimes harried. Paraeducators quickly decipher teacher directives (what outcome is expected, how it is supposed to happen, and where the priority is placed – on process or product) so as not to infringe on learning time, and become aware of areas where they are expected to take initiative in lieu of specific directions (picking up clerical tasks or redirecting wandering minds and feet). Making efficient use of communication time is essential for teacher/paraeducator teams.Another challenge for paraeducators working with struggling students is to know when to watch from a supportive distance and when to step in to help. Because we work so closely with students, our desire to see them succeed tempts us to step in too soon, depriving them of the satisfaction of having accomplished their tasks under their own power. Or we may hold out too long until their repeated failed attempts have convinced them they will never succeed. But when we are keen observers and empathic listeners with students, parents, and teaching professionals, the ebb and flow of teaching and learning appears seamless. For paraeducators, the ability to balance on a threshold between encouraging eustress that promotes growth, and alleviating distress that breeds frustration, comes with listening to teacher direction and parental input as well as much practice. Mastering this skill is essential for promoting student independence, which is the ultimate goal for teacher/paraeducator teams.

The Importance of Training

While teaching professionals have come to their vocation through an educational process of study, practicum, and licensure, paraeducators more often than not have arrived with little more formal training than life experience. This experience taught us to think on our feet, but it probably has not taught us the most effective response to the unique needs and behaviors of the variety of students with whom we work. Likewise, life has not necessarily taught us how to work on an educational team. Therefore, it is imperative for school administrators to provide training opportunities for paraeducators that will enable us to fulfill our role in the education process. This can best happen when paraeducators and teachers are asked to identify their own training needs, and then are trained separately where the needs are unique to each role and together when the needs are the same.Additionally, teachers can provide paraeducators with on-the-job training by giving clear directions that state the expected outcomes, the processes to be followed, and if necessary, the importance of each. It is especially helpful when teachers and administrators demonstrate their openness to questions and suggestions from paraeducators. Timely constructive feedback is also a valuable training tool.Paraeducators should take advantage of every available opportunity to train for the role in general as well as for the specific skills needed to do assigned tasks. Each of the students and staff members with whom we work has a distinctive set of needs and behaviors and we can best respond to them when we understand our own needs and behaviors. We must know our own hot buttons and how to defuse them when they get pushed, because they will be, and know where to go for help when we need it, because we will. Training opportunities are most useful when we can practice the appropriate responses to unexpected behaviors in others so that they become automatic. Above all, in training or on the job, paraeducators must ask questions of and follow the examples set by the professionals directing our work.

The Rewards of the Profession

Few other work settings offer the variety of duties or the flexibility of schedule found in education settings. Because paraeducators take direction from licensed teaching professionals, we are able to directly impact student success while still having time to enjoy personal lives outside of work. And because we work with students, they appreciate our work long after they have moved on. Lastly, for those considering careers as licensed educators, working as a paraeducator offers a hands-on setting in which to decide whether teaching is a viable career goal and to experiment with different learning environments before committing to focus on a particular age group or specialty. No matter what the title is, the role of paraeducator is a challenging, rewarding, and valuable position on the education team.