HOT TOPIC – The Distinction in Roles of Paraeducators and Teachers

The Distinction in Roles of Paraeducators and Teachers

By Doug Van Oort

Education Faculty and Paraeducator Certification Coordinator, Kirkwood Community College

Maria, who has her high school diploma and recently acquired her Iowa Level I paraeducator certification by taking six college credits, is starting her 17th year as a paraeducator and is highly regarded by all professionals in her school building, including teachers and the principal. They describe her as great with students, easy to work with, effective in dealing with student misbehavior, and organized.

Sandra, the special education teacher assigned to direct Maria’s work, is new and is overwhelmed with all there is to do, such as learning about her students, building relationships with the many teachers she supports, reading and updating IEPs, communicating with parents, and so on….in addition to directing the work of Maria and three other paraeducators.

Buried under all she has to do, Sandra decides to turn responsibility for one student, Devon, over to Maria, knowing that Maria has worked with Devon for years and understands him and his needs better than she does. Sandra tells Maria to start writing lesson plans for Devon and teaching the lessons to Devon in both his general education classrooms as well as in the special education classroom where he is scheduled for part of the school day for highly specialized instruction. Sandra expects Maria to find or create all materials needed in those lessons. In addition, while supporting Devon in his general education classes, Maria hears comments from a couple teachers such as, “He’s your kid,” when she asks them what they want Devon to be learning and doing or when she asks how they expect her to address his misbehavior.

Some might ask, “What’s wrong with Maria’s story? She has demonstrated many positive qualities as a paraeducator over many years, and Sandra is new, unsure of how to meet Devon’s needs, and is overwhelmed.” According to the Department of Education’s Guide for Effective Paraeducator Practices in Iowa (2007), there’s plenty wrong with Maria’s situation. Below are two tables that appear on pages 63-65 of this guide. Pay special attention to the shaded items as they apply to Maria’s situation:

Paraeducators May:

Paraeducators May NOT:

1.      Be left alone in the classroom, in a planned way when the supervising teacher is called away.

1.      Be used as a substitute for certified teachers unless the paraeducator is a certified teacher or certified sub.

2.      Work without direct supervision with individuals or groups of students on concepts introduced by a teacher.

2.      Teach completely new concepts and skills.

3.      Have specific instructional and management responsibility for an individual student or groups of students under direction of the teacher.

3.      Be given the primary responsibility for the education of an individual student.

4.      Be involved in student staffing and meetings, as approved by licensed staff and family members.

4.      Be assigned to attend student meetings in lieu of the supervising teacher.

5.      Support the inclusion of children with disabilities in general education by taking notes, tutoring, giving tests orally, or supporting behavior interventions.

5.      Make accommodation decisions outside of a student’s IEP.

6.      Maintain records relevant to classroom assignments.

6.      Carry out clerical responsibilities that are assigned to other staff members.

7.      Aid the teacher in supervising assemblies.

7.      Take full responsibility for supervising assemblies.

8.      Accompany students on outings to the community, recreation sites, and school related trips or errands.

8.      Take full responsibility for supervising students on outings to the community, recreation sites, and school related trips.


Duties of Supervising Teacher

Duties of Paraeducator

Classroom Organization

·        Plans weekly schedule

·        Plans instructional program: goals, lessons, activities for entire class and individual students.

Classroom Organization

·        Assists with planning; copies, types, files, etc.

·        Implements plan as specified by the teacher

·        Plans review activities

·        Maintains records


·        Administers tests to entire class

·        Evaluates and grades student performance


·        Checks and scores student work

·        Monitors student progress; relates findings to teacher

Sets Objectives

·        Determines appropriate objectives for class and individual students

Sets Objectives

·        Implements lessons to meet student objectives


·        Designs and selects instructional materials

·        Teaches lessons for the entire class, small groups and individual students


·        Assembles instructional materials as told by the teacher

·        Leads small group and 1-on-1 lessons as directed by teacher

Behavior Management

·        Plans and carries out behavior strategies for the whole class and individual students

Behavior Management

·        Implements behavioral management strategies using same emphasis & techniques as teacher

·        Conducts observations, collects data, maintains records

Working with Family Members

·        Corresponds & meets with family members

·        Initiates, conducts, and facilitates conferences for individual students

Working with Family Members

·        Corresponds and meets with family members under the direction of the teacher

Individualized Educational Planning

·        Develops and implements IEP with IEP team

Individualized Educational Planning

·        Assists in implementing IEP goals & objectives

·        Carries out teacher’s plan


·        Attends appropriate inservice and professional development opportunities


·        Attends appropriate inservice and professional development opportunities

Other Duties

·        Facilitates the inclusion of students with disabilities into general education

Other Duties

·        Monitors playground, cafeteria, study hall, bus

·        Facilitates the inclusion of students with disabilities into general education

·        Provides health services as assigned

·        Provides practice skills in the community as assigned

The Department of Education clearly states that:

·        It is the teacher’s responsibility, not the paraeducator’s, to teach skills or knowledge the first time. The paraeducator can be assigned by the teacher to review what was taught or to supervise activities in which students practice or apply what the teacher has taught, but the teacher is responsible for teaching content.

·        The teacher, not the paraeducator, is responsible for instruction and management of students’ behavior. Yes, the paraeducator assists the teacher in carrying out lesson plans and behavior plans, but the teacher is responsible for the design of these plans.

Unfortunately, the case of Maria is not uncommon in Iowa and around the country. I have both observed and been told of several similar cases. In addition to being a violation of Iowa DOE guidelines, giving responsibility for a student’s education solely to a paraeducator is also in conflict with the requirement that teachers be highly qualified under the No Child Left Behind Act. In Maria’s case, she is essentially Devon’s teacher, and she has only a high school diploma and is not, therefore, highly qualified in the eyes of this federal law. Assigning this level of responsibility is also simply unfair to paraeducators who earn a fraction of what teachers earn.

So, what should Maria (and other paraeducators who find themselves in this situation) do? While it’s certainly not easy to voice concern to one’s supervisor, Maria really needs to do so. She should, in private, express her concern to Sandra. She could show Sandra the above tables from the Iowa DOE as support. If there is no change after talking with Sandra, she should take the issue to the principal; showing the DOE tables to the principal might be wise, too. Because there is a code of ethics for paraeducators (also included in the DOE’s guide), it would also be wise of Maria to document when she spoke with Sandra and the principal about this situation in case she is ever questioned in court about her role and whether or not she complied with this code of ethics, namely that paraeducators:

·        Engage only in activities for which they are qualified or trained.

·        Recognize that the supervisor has the ultimate responsibility for instruction and management.

·        Help to see that the best interests of individual children and youth are met. (from Iowa DOE Guide for Effective Paraeducator Practices in Iowa)

Sharing the above code of ethics with Sandra and the principal might also be wise.                                                                       

One other situation not addressed in Maria’s case that is often a concern for paraeducators is communicating with students’ parents. The DOE states that paraeducators should only correspond with and meet with family members of their students under the direction of the teacher. While the paraeducator is an important part of the educational team and can provide valuable input regarding student objectives, progress, accommodations, behavior interventions, and so on, the teacher has more specific training in these areas as well as in education law and school district policies and procedures and should be the team member who communicates with parents and family members about these issues. This requirement ensures that:

·        the school employee with the most knowledge in education law, policies, and procedures communicates with parents;

·        the school communicates with parents and family members with one voice, to avoid the potential for conflicting information being shared with parents;

·        the parent does not attempt to pit one staff member against the other;

·        the parent directs concerns or questions to the staff member who has the power to make changes, the teacher; and

·        the staff member who is being paid more due to a greater level of responsibility is actually fulfilling that responsibility.

The paraeducator should develop a script such as the one that follows to use when approached by a parent or family member with a concern or questions about a student’s program or progress:

               “As a paraeducator, I really am not allowed to discuss specifics of a student’s program                with parents (or family). You will need to discuss this with Mr./Ms. Smith (the teacher).”

While paraeducators are invaluable members of the educational team, their role is distinctly different from the role of teachers. This distinction in roles must be maintained to ensure that students’ best interests are being met, to ensure that schools are covered in terms of the liability for students’ education, and to protect paraeducators from being taken advantage of and being put into situations for which they are not adequately trained.

Leave a Comment