Interview by Wangui Njuguna, Education Daily with Marilyn Likins, Executive Director, National Resource Center for Paraeducators.
Q: In your role as executive director for the National Resource Center for Paraeducators what do you hear from paraeducators about the supports they need in schools?
A: Paraeducators need to have a thorough understanding of their roles and responsibilities tied to relevant, quality, ongoing training and supervision. They also need to have administrators, teachers and other educational staff recognize the scope of their responsibilities and demonstrate respect through appropriate job assignments. Paraeducators should not be asked to perform certain tasks without requisite training and there are some tasks that paraeducators should not perform at all. Their teachers and other educational personnel also need training on how to effectively delegate and direct the work of the paraeducator(s) with whom they work. Additionally, both teachers and paraeducators need training on communication, problem solving and building effective teacher/paraeducator teams. Again, they need to focus on the diverse roles and training tied to performance of those roles
And finally, administrators need to understand their role in supporting teacher/paraeducator teams as they work and problem solve together to meet the needs of all children.
Q: How does ESSA provide those supports?
A: ESSA sets the stage for training and professional development (PD) of all key members of instructional/educational teams including paraeducators. Getting the word out to states, districts and especially schools will be important so that future training or professional development will also target paraeducator needs. As you know, in the past, PD has largely focused on administrators and teachers.
Also, with the reauthorization of ESSA, and its support of including paraeducators in teams at the school, district and state level, training in effective communication, team building and problem solving is key! Paraeducators will be participating in these meetings, perhaps for the first time, and need to be familiar with educational terms and acronyms frequently used in such meetings. More importantly, they need to understand what and how to effectively contribute to team discussions as well as the value of their contribution.
Q: Have the roles of paraeducators expanded over the years, particularly as states face teacher shortages, and how does ESSA’s definition of paraeducator reflect these roles?
A: Yes, the roles and responsibilities of paraeducators have changed dramatically since they were introduced into classrooms almost five decades ago. As teacher aides, their role was to provide teachers with more time to plan and implement learning activities. Their roles were limited to performing routine monitoring and clerical tasks and maintaining learning environments. Over time, the roles of paraeducators have become more complex and demanding in all programs areas however training has not kept pace with the demands of their evolving jobs. These days in many classrooms, paraeducators are asked to work with some of our most challenging students with little or no training. And yes, more and more paraeducators are being tapped to fill critical teacher shortages. Many teacher preparation programs are recruiting paraeducators as potential teacher candidates due to their familiarity with the challenges of the job and the community.
In addition to professional development for instructional teams (e.g., general and special education teachers, paraeducators, administrators, related services providers, etc.) ESSA specifically addresses career pathways for paraeducators who are interested in pursuing a teaching career.
Q: Why was it important that ESSA maintains qualification requirements for paraeducators?
A: To assume that anyone can do the job of a paraeducator would be a mistake. To increase outcomes for students, paraeducators must have foundational knowledge and demonstrate key knowledge and skills to provide effective instruction and classroom support.
Q: How do paraeducators contribute to ensuring students get the educational services they need?
A: Paraeducators are frequently the ones on the front lines working with some of our most challenging students. Teachers’ roles have become increasingly complex and demanding and at times the paraeducator has worked more closely with a particular student or group of students and is more familiar with their performance and needs. Well functioning teacher and paraeducator teams is the answer as such teams communicate daily to discuss student performance and address program changes as needed. Again training both teachers and paraeducators on building effective teams and communication is what it is all about.
Q: What professional development do paraeducators need and seek out? I noticed that Montana Office of Public Instruction has dedicated PD for paraeducators; does the National Resource Center for Paraeducators work with State Education Agencies and LEAs on PD?
A: First and foremost paraeducators ask for training in the areas of effective classroom and behavior management strategies followed closely by effective instructional practices as it relates to their assignment, e.g., special education, Title 1, ELL, etc. Training requests are also tied to what type of instruction or support they are asked to provide e.g., small group, large group, one-on-one, etc. Specific content areas are many including reading, math, Common Core, autism, teaming, communication and problem solving. Yes. upon request, the NRCP works with SEAs and LEAs to assist in PD as well as infrastructure development at the state or district level. Some examples include facilitating: building state infrastructures and systems that support paraeducator development at the state and/or district level, state standards & certification, state paraeducator consortiums and communication systems, university and community college coursework, and career pathways.
Q: How does your organization garner increased respect for paraeducators?
A: Our organization and others try to increase awareness at the national, state and district level of the contributions that paraeducators make on a daily basis to the educational and social outcomes of our students. We do this through our newsletter, presentations, publications, and annual national conference. We work to ensure that paraeducators are always at the table when professional development, standards and career pathways are being discussed. We also seek to collaborate with other national and state organizations, centers, and unions to ensure that the role paraeducators play in educating our students is recognized and valued.
Q: what challenges do paraeducators face and what solutions should be implemented?
A: You could write a book on this question! Paraeducators have multiple challenges that vary from state to state. These include a need for: 1) increased funding, 2) increased work hours tied to benefits, and 3) enhanced training tied directly to their job requirements.