When most people think about school staff, they think first of teachers and maybe about the school principal. They rarely think about a group that our schools depend on: paraeducators.
Paraeducators have had a dramatic impact on my time in education. They’re some of the most skilled educators, most dedicated people, and have strong connections to the community. I’ve worked in schools where the teachers and principals turned over frequently, but the paraeducators held things together and carried the culture of the school.
Despite this, too few recognize their importance. They’re often dismissed in school improvement conversations, and too often new teachers make the mistake of treating them as unskilled labor.
Paraeducators matter, so I’m going to provide an overview of this important role.
What Is a Paraeducator / Paraprofessional?
Paraeducators work in an assistant role in collaboration with, or under the supervision of, licensed teachers. Paraeducators can support individual students, small groups, or whole classrooms depending on their role.
Paraeducators are sometimes called paraprofessionals. I prefer the clarity of the term paraeducator, but the terms are largely interchangeable.
Why Are Paraeducators So Important?
Paraeducators fill some of the most critical roles in our schools. They also provide some important things that the teaching force often can’t.
The truth is education funding typically provides just enough teachers for large-scale generalized support. Good teachers work hard to differentiate their instruction, meet students in their zone of proximal development, and provide supplemental instruction to students that need extra.
Unfortunately, they often just don’t have the time for all the individualized or small group help students need. This is where paraeducators come in.
While a classroom may only have one licensed teacher, it may be served by several paraeducators. They could be funded through additional school budget, federal Title funds, or special education requirements. Either way, paraeducators provide extra instruction to students who need it most.
After a teacher provides instruction to the class, the para can work individually, or in a small group, with students on the instructional task. The students get more adult attention and support than they would otherwise.
In some cases, a paraeducator also helps a student with instructional access needs. For example, a trained assistant may be part of a behavior support plan that allows a student to take a break instead of running through their escalation cycle. Another paraeducator may provide bilingual support that allows an English Language Learner to access instruction while building language proficiency.
It is important to recognize that good practice, and federal law, requires paraeducators to work in concert with licensed teachers. When this relationship is strong, skilled paraprofessionals can dramatically improve results for the students they serve.
Stability / Consistency
In many schools, the paraprofessional work force is the most stable. Principals change frequently. Teachers can be moved to other schools, switch districts, or simply leave the profession.
While newer paraeducators have high rates of turnover (and are vulnerable to RIF), those who choose it as a career option will remain in a school through several cycles of teacher and administrator turnover. Often, the paras will have historical knowledge and family connections that simply can’t be built in the few years many principals spend in a school.
This consistency can be incredibly valuable to a healthy school. Of course, if the paraeducator culture isn’t healthy it can also cause challenges.
In many cases, the consistency of paraprofessionals helps with teacher transition. As a new elementary teacher, I was incredibly lucky to be supported by a skilled reading assistant. The school provided no training or onboarding (a red flag) and little structure for collaborative planning.
The paraeducator had worked in the reading intervention program for a decade and was able to help me set up an effective reading schedule, access the school reading curriculum, and provide assessment support while I built my skills. Her experience trumped my college preparation in every way.
Due to the more frequent interactions and smaller group or individual contact with a student, some students build their strongest and most supportive relationships with paraeducators. Many paras also provide supervision in non-instructional settings (recess, cafeteria, etc.) which gives kids the chance to interact with them outside the classroom.
This relationship can persist across grade-levels or class changes. A para may interact with a student for years, where teachers primarily interact with students assigned to their class. Many of the most beautiful mentor relationships I’ve seen for kids have involved a paraeducator.
Paraeducators are often from the neighborhood a school serves, while licensed staff may be from other areas. The paraeducator workforce is typically more diverse and better represents the lived experience of the students in the school.
Too many schools are disconnected from the communities they serve. Paraeducators can help bridge this gap when elevated, supported, and listened to.
This is why I believe so strongly in Grow Your Own teacher programs that draw from the paraeducator pool. Paraeducators that are ready to be teachers deserve the support and it’s a huge benefit to the school. Of course, those who prefer to work as paraeducators deserve respect and recognition as well.
Example Paraeducator Roles
I’ve threaded examples throughout, but let’s look at common roles.
These used to be more common, but some classrooms still have dedicated paraeducators. I see it most often in primary classrooms serving younger students that aren’t yet independent.
The paraeducator provides small group instructional support and helps manage students during whole class lessons.
Reading Instructional Assistant
Many schools place an extra emphasis on reading instruction. These positions may be funded by Title 1 federal funds.
Reading assistants may rotate through several classrooms serving a literacy block, or be assigned to specific reading intervention programs. In either case, they are trained with specialized knowledge in reading instruction and intervention programs.
Emerging Bilingual Support
As with reading intervention, schools are often looking to stretch funding for english language learner programs. In some cases, it’s more effective to fund a paraeducator position than additional teaching positions.
These paras may speak a second language to support new learners, or provide additional instructional support in other ways.
This is now the most common paraeducator role in many schools. Many students have individualized education plans (IEPs) that require higher levels of individual support than can be provided by a teacher alone.
Schools hire paraeducators to provide these supports. Some models of special education also use a teacher to design instructional plans and paraeducators to implement them.
Special education paraprofessionals may work 1:1 to support a student or serve a whole classroom with special attention provided to those with additional IEP needs. There are a wide range of best practices for special education paraeducators that I won’t cover here. It is a necessary and challenging role.
Paraeducators are also often used to support media programs. In some cases, this is assisting with book check-out, research, and shelving. The paraeducator is an important addition to a media specialist.
Unfortunately, in other cases school districts have gone to having a single centralized media specialist, and local library programs delivered by media assistants. This is not a knock on paraeducators, but rather recognition that we aren’t investing in critical instructional programs.
How Much Do Paraeducators Earn?
Unfortunately, paraeducators are not fairly compensated for the value they bring. Many are part-time roles. In most districts, paraeducators are eligible for benefits and some districts provide career advancement opportunities. However, their pay is entry level.
The median paraeducator pay for 2019 was just $27,920.
How to Become a Paraeducator
Districts are always looking for great paraprofessionals. There is a good chance the school district closest to you is hiring right now. Look at their job listings online, and review the job qualifications.
Many paraeducator positions require only a high school degree. Previous federal laws required degrees for paraeducator positions that were federally funded. While this is no longer an absolute requirement, districts do often require higher levels of training or education for paras providing instructional support.
If you do not currently have the education required, you can begin in other assistant positions. Take advantage of any district professional development or continuing education benefits to get the necessary education for the position you want.
I’ve known paraeducators who went on to climb the entire career ladder and become school district superintendents. Their experience along the way provided great insight and made them excellent school leaders.
Paraeducators are incredibly valuable to schools. We need great, dedicated people to fill these roles. You can impact the school culture, build strong relationships with students, and connect the school with the community.