Preparing Paraeducators & Education Majors Together in College

Preparing Paraeducators & Education Majors Together in College

Doug Van Oort, Paraeducator Certification Coordinator & Education Careers Faculty
Kirkwood Community College, Cedar Rapids, IA

Imagine actors in a play practicing their roles individually but never rehearsing together prior to opening night. Or, imagine the quarterback, backs, receivers, and linemen on a football team never practicing together before the first game. It would be absurd to expect smooth performances in either example.

Yet, this is pretty common in education. Many colleges prepare education majors and special education majors separately, but they are then expected to work together to meet the needs of students with disabilities. The same is true regarding education majors and students taking courses to become paraeducators.

At Kirkwood Community College, we had done the same, preparing education majors and paraeducator majors separately for the most part. After taking over as our Paraeducator Certification Coordinator last year, I felt we needed to change to a prepare-them-together approach. Often, I’d heard, “The teachers need to hear this,” from my students who were already employed as paraeducators. I’d heard reports of general education teachers saying to paraeducators, “He’s your kid, not mine,” when faced with a student’s challenging behavior or academic needs. I’d also seen or heard of paraeducators being given too much responsibility for a child’s education. It was clear that many teachers were not fully aware of the differences in their own roles and those of paraeducators, and not fully aware of their responsibility for all students in the classroom. Unfortunately, it also appeared that there was still a wall that existed between general education and special education. A prepare-them-together approach appeared to be one way Kirkwood could contribute to increasing awareness about proper use of paraeducators and to tearing down that wall.

I proposed to my dean, Kathleen Van Steenhuyse, and our Education Careers coordinator, Jack Terndrup, that we move the state-required competencies for the beginning level of paraeducator certification from our Introduction to Disabilities Services course, taken only by paraeducator majors and some special education majors, to our Exploring Teaching

course, a course taken by all our education and special education majors. Fortunately, both recognized the benefits of this proposal and approved, and Kirkwood began preparing education majors and paraeducator majors together during the Spring 2011 semester.

This transition was made easier because many objectives in both courses already matched, such as making classrooms safe places for all, creating a motivational environment, respecting diversity, and abiding by special education law. New objectives to Exploring Teaching, that our education majors had previously not been exposed to, included: 1) awareness that the paraeducator is an important contributor to the educational team; 2) the distinction in roles of teachers and paraeducators; and 3) the use of adaptations and assistive technology, essentials of successful inclusion. New learning for our paraeducator majors, or concepts and skills they would not have learned in Introduction to Disabilities Services, included: 1) a broader range of effective methods and strategies, such as giving feedback and keeping students on task and accountable; 2) understanding the impact of poverty on learning and how to support students in poverty; and 3) the importance of using research- or evidence-based practices in schools.

In addition to the changes to Exploring Teaching, we at Kirkwood implemented two other changes that I believe will contribute to greater awareness about paraeducator issues and teamwork in both our education and paraeducator majors, and ultimately in area schools that employ our former students as teachers and paraeducators:

  1. We eliminated a separate field experience course taken by paraeducator majors for advanced state certification and now include these students in field experience with education majors. Our future teachers and paraeducators now attend seminars together, where their learning about paraeducator issues that began in Exploring Teaching can continue.
  2. We moved paraeducators from a separate paraeducator advisory committee to our Education Careers Advisory Committee, resulting in members of this committee – area teachers and school administrators – being more informed about paraeducator issues.

Since beginning to prepare teachers and paraeducators together, our faculty has taught several sections of Exploring Teaching during the Spring 2011 and Fall 2011 semesters, At the end of each semester, students are surveyed anonymously to determine the effectiveness of our changes, and the results have been very encouraging. Of the 149 students surveyed:

  • 97% agreed or strongly agreed that the course helped them better understand the distinction in roles of teachers and paraeducators and what paraeducators may and may not do based on Iowa Department of Education guidelines.
  • 97% agreed or strongly agreed that the course helped them better understand that the teacher is responsible for training and directing the paraeducator.
  • 99% agreed or strongly agreed that the course helped them better understand that the paraeducator is a valuable member of the educational team.

Another benefit of our new prepare-them-together approach at Kirkwood has surfaced. Many students who previously had not considered becoming paraeducators are now considering this profession. Although we have no data to support this, our Education Careers faculty believes that, in the past, students taking Exploring Teaching who decided to no longer pursue teaching just left our Education Careers program in search of other careers. Now, based on their introduction to the paraeducator profession, many are considering this new option. Of the 149 students surveyed, two who had originally taken the course to pursue teaching now plan to pursue paraeducator certification instead, and 21 others plan to get their paraeducator certification while also continuing to pursue teaching. In addition, four students who took Exploring Teaching specifically to become paraeducators are now considering becoming teachers, and four others plan to pursue teaching instead of paraeducator certification. (Note: All Kirkwood courses that meet state paraeducator certification also lead directly to our AA degree in Education Careers.) Overall, many of our students are becoming aware of another positive career option due to the changes we made.

As a result of our prepare-them-together approach, I am confident that our education majors at Kirkwood will not be shocked to find another professional in their K-12 classroom on their first day in the classroom, will respect the distinction in teacher and paraeducator roles, and will be more likely to properly utilize paraeducator support than if we had continued to prepare the two in isolation. And I am confident that our paraeducator majors will be more empowered to respectfully and appropriately question their supervisors when improperly utilized than if we had continued to prepare them separately.

If you would like more details about Kirkwood’s prepare-them-together approach, contact me at or 319-398-4936. I would be very happy to share. You may also visit our paraeducator certification website at

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