A paraeducator? Extra help for students? You bet! But, working effectively with paraeducators requires first and foremost the recognition that the presence of a paraeducator at once promises help and signals a dramatic shift in your role and responsibilities as a special education teacher.
Some teachers welcome this shift. The recognition that students who need special education services and adaptations to general education curriculum would not survive without additional assistance is so powerful that they accept this role change. Many teachers also recognize that they, working alone, cannot imaginably provide all the supports to each of the general education teachers who also teach their students. These teachers regard the work that paraeducators do as necessary to their success as a teacher and to the safety, health, and academic success of their students.
Today's teachers also know that the assistance they receive from paraeducators comes with a price. It means that they lose some of the personalized one-to-one contact with students. Sometimes, this loss of contact also means sacrificing some control. One teacher talked about the paraeducator in her classroom: "Sometimes she does more individual instruction with the kids than I do. She is the teacher when I'm not there."
The Continuum of Approaches for School Professionals is a model that illustrates the decrease in control that teachers and service providers may experience as they move away from an educational model that emphasizes individualism and individual teachers in classrooms. The shift toward the right side of the horizontal axis represents the increases of potential influence a teacher has on students' education through collaborative and consultative work. Supervising and directing the work of paraeducators represents a maximum increase of influence on large numbers of students' educational experiences, but a loss of control over the specific daily events.
The role of teachers and other service providers in schools becomes more like that of a middle-level executive, an engineer, or a doctor or lawyer, who consults with colleagues, diagnoses and plans, and then directs the work of paraprofessionals in order to meet the needs of the client or patient. In this case, the professionals plan curriculum, instruction, and appropriate adaptations and direct the paraeducator in helping to carry out the plans.
On the bright side, this role change signifies a shift to a more professional status for teachers. The question of whether teaching is really a profession and how teacher qualities compare to the qualities of other professionals has been discussed for years. Most agree that a profession is formed when members of an occupation have a knowledge base (as in engineering and medicine) and use that knowledge base to guide practice. There is also much agreement that, in professions, being prepared is essential to professional ethics and that unprepared people should not be permitted to practice. There is agreement that professional status is given to an occupation when there is a high degree of uncertainty in everyday practice that requires judgment.
Judgment is the primary factor that distinguishes between professionals and others in the same field who are not professionals. Professional judgment is required for all of the teachers' functions that cannot be delegated to others and for which the teacher assumes final and full responsibility, even when some of the tasks that lead to completion of the professional responsibilities are assigned to others (e.g. paraeducators, volunteers, peer assistants, student assistants). School professionals, thus, are leaders or 'executives' who make sure that the work they plan gets done at the right time, in the right way, and in the right amount.
I'm just a teacher… Now I'm an executive?
Think of your school as a workplace, composed of many workgroups (e.g. grade level teams, subject area teams). Each workgroup is composed of people who hold different kinds of roles, have different types and levels of responsibility, and who come with different kinds of academic preparation. Schools, as workplaces, produce students who are well educated through a wide range of experiences and interactions with various members of the workgroup. Often, school workgroups (teams) have a single person as a designated leader. Sometimes the leadership of the workgroup is shared among multiple members. Whether in teaching or business, the person (or persons) who run(s) the team must perform a number of executive functions. Teachers who serve in team leadership or executive roles must ensure completion of and remain accountable for their five primary responsibilities. The first four are (1) planning curriculum and instruction for students, (2) assessing students both for program eligibility and for ongoing progress monitoring, (3) teaching or causing instruction to happen, and (4) collaboration with other professionals and families. The fifth responsibility, supervision of paraeducators, is characterized by seven additional functions.
What are the Keys to Successful Paraeducator Supervision?
The seven keys to success as a school professional who supervises paraeducators are the same kinds of executive functions performed by team leaders in business. In businesses, team leaders or executives perform seven vital executive functions to keep the team working.
- Team leaders orient new paraeducators to the program, creating personalized job descriptions for each paraeducator.
- They set a schedule so all members know where they need to be, and when the work needs to be done.
- They provide plans and direction for the work that needs to be done.
- They delegate the right kinds of tasks to people who are best able to handle them.
- Executives make sure that their workgroup members have the right training to do the job, and help them get more training for new skills or they provide additional job-specific training themselves.
- They monitor the performance of group members to assure that the work gets done in the right way and they give feedback and coaching to the team members to help them do their work well.
- Finally, a team leader or executive makes sure that the workplace functions smoothly by creating communication pathways and systems, implementing problem-solving sequences, and either mediating conflicts or assisting with conflict management approaches among team members.
How can I get past the barriers to thinking and acting like an executive?
As with any teaching technique, the seven paraeducator supervision functions rely on the skill of the teacher to have the desired effect. However, before a teacher can even think about effectively supervising paraeducators through the seven executive functions, she needs to conquer a few situational 'demons' or barriers that plague every teacher. You may want to reflect on these typical problems or demons to assess your own situation and to improve on your ability to manage them.
Employing paraeducators to provide instructional support to students changes the role of the classroom teacher or consulting teacher. While it increases the professional status of teachers, it requires substantial time to be spent on supervision. While supervisory responsibilities may be shared among professionals in a program, grade level, or building, additional time is required. Time is always a problem for teachers who have many simultaneous demands to fulfill, and it is one of three barriers to effective paraeducator supervision that must be considered. Another consideration is teacher knowledge of legislative, ethical and liability issues. Finally, administrative support for teachers who supervise paraeducators is paramount to their success.
Developed by: Nancy K. French, Ph.D. Executive Director of The PAR2A Center at The University of Colorado at Denver