In our great state of Minnesota the governor declared this week “Paraprofessional Appreciation Week.” I often get asked, especially by friends and family back home, “What is it exactly that you do?” Since I’m home sick today, I have the time to finally answer that question, in as much detail as confidentiality allows me to.
According to Wikipedia a paraprofessional, also known as a paraeducator or teacher’s aide, is a “teaching-related position within a school generally responsible for specialized or concentrated assistance for students in elementary and secondary schools.”
So that should clear things up, right?
Let’s take a step back for a minute. If you’re anything like me, you may have visited your little one’s school and wondered who these “extra” people are wandering the halls without 20 kids trailing them. Or who is this ‘Mrs. H” your child refers to all the time that isn’t listed on your school’s staff directory? I was the same way when my kids started school. Also, I grew up in a time and place where we had a teacher AND an assistant teacher in our classroom at all times. In my school days, special education students were not integrated/included in gen ed classes. I had very little exposure to peers who learned differently than I did or who needed additional physical and/or educational support. Most classrooms in America today however are inclusive, meaning there may be a wide range of learning ability in one setting, and they are led by just ONE (very tired, over worked and underpaid) teacher.
That’s where the paraeducator comes in.
Many paraprofessionals work one on one with a special ed student, following that student around to special services and activities from start to finish every school day. Some paras work in several different classrooms throughout the day supporting multiple students, sometimes at the same time, with various learning abilities. Often times these same people are the lucky little devils in charge of lunchroom, recess, hallway, and before and after school supervision.
So in case you think that since your child may not work directly with these mysterious people that you get a pass on this particular appreciation week, let me take you through some real life things that paras do, day in and day out, at schools across our nation.
You may recognize those pushing a wheel chair bound student to and from in the halls. But paras are also the ones that stand by the doors and greet your child with a smile on their face bright and early every morning before the bell rings. We’re the ones re-directing kids on where to go depending on the time of day, even though it’s May and they’re not new and surely they should know by now. We’re the one’s that have the pleasure of enforcing the “no running in the halls” rule.
Some of help with feeding our student depending on the need. But we are also in the breakfast room wiping spilled syrup off of sticky fingers on French toast day. And in the lunch room opening those adult-version-of-jack-in-the-box fruit cups that parents insist on sending with children every day without teaching them how to open them on their own. We open countless Lunchables and Gogurt sleeves and milk cartons, ketchup, mayo and mustard packets. We poke flimsy straws through those metallic drink pouches, and we smell peanut butter on ourselves all. the. time.
Paras are those guardian angels outside on the playground that keep your kids safe. Not only do we keep a watchful eye out for any suspicious activity on the other side of that chain link fence, we also keep Johnny from breaking an arm when he tries to earn his status as a circus performer by climbing on the outside of the top of the tall slide. Every day. And we stop Susie just short of sticking her tongue on the cold, metal, tether ball pole. Again.
We are in the classroom correcting backwards b’s and d’s, reviewing spelling lists, and sounding out words with with readers who are a little behind their peers. We learn new ways to do old math problems using boxes and tree branches and we aren’t even complaining about it.
We are the eyes and ears of every school. We notice when kids are being left out or bullied and we address the problem head on with equal parts empathy and authority. We teach children how to treat each other with kindness and respect. We answer with honesty the tough questions that little ones have about those that appear different than them. We are the on front lines of hearing every story your child can’t wait to share from what goes on at home. Those stories can be true, made up, heart breaking, embarrassing, and hilarious. We know more about you than you’d probably like us to.
Yes, we take care of the hygiene needs of those who cannot do it for themselves. But we are also the ones walking to the nurse’s office holding the trash can in front of the most recent victim of the stomach bug. Or pinching an all too-thin tissue to the bloody nose of the kid who had an unfortunate run in with a basketball in phy ed. We catch freshly fallen-out teeth until a tiny treasure chest is acquired to secure it until it finds its home under a pillow. We’ve had every single bodily fluid and gas thrust at us and we’ve been exposed to virtually every virus and bacteria known to humankind.
Our clothes are stained with “non-toxic” paint, there’s fruit snacks on the bottom of our shoes, and glitter in our hair. We take hugs with open arms from kids who likely haven’t showered in a week.
We calm the emotionally overwhelmed and wipe sad tears. We teach deep breathing and self regulating techniques. We dance to go-noodle during brain breaks and know every song by heart. We tie literally hundreds of shoes and stuff mittens in the cuffs of winter coats so little wrists don’t get cold. We know basic sign language. We help teach non verbal students how to communicate. We encourage. We help. We redirect. We know when to take a sensory break. We laugh and we tell silly jokes. And we celebrate every small victory like it’s a big one.
Right now as I write this next to a pile of tissues and herbal tea, there is a para at school juggling her schedule and mine because I’m home sick.
We do all of this and so much more every day because we love our job and we love your kiddos. All of them.
So the next time you see one of us in an orange vest with disheveled hair at school pick up, a simple thanks and a thumbs up will mean so much.
But please don’t hug us because we have been touched far too much today and we do not need you to add to the germ pool that is currently living on our body.