Dear School Boards: It’s Time To Treat Paraprofessionals as Professionals, Please.

Teachers consider the paraprofessionals who share their classroom heroes. It’s time school boards did, too.

A paraprofessional could also be a classroom assistant, teacher assistant, instructional aide, paraeducator, or just para. In my district, they are called paraprofessionals. We are down to a precious few of these incredible colleagues, as are many districts. The staff shortage in the education space is real, and extreme.

There are several reasons why there is a staff shortage, but the one easily fixed is how people are treated. All it takes is leadership to acknowledge there is a problem and change their approach.

Unfortunately, there are school leaders who do not treat their employees as professionals, including paraprofessionals. It’s right there in the name, but still unacknowledged.

Instead, leaders complain about how expensive paraprofessionals are, or insist they aren’t needed. When teachers explain why paraprofessionals are desperately needed, those explanations fall on deaf ears. That should not surprise me, and it really doesn’t, either.

In a system in which teachers are not treated as professionals, how can one expect paraprofessionals to be? Well, I do, and I want the school boards’ opinions of all educators to change.

I am officially holding school boards to account for the damage they have done to public education by being petty, power hungry, and woefully (and willfully) ignorant. Those boards that qualify will see themselves in that statement. To everyone else, I’m sorry.

Paraprofessionals Help Build Inclusive Classrooms

Educators strive to provide the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for their students. We build inclusive classrooms, differentiate instruction to reach all learners, and create a welcoming learning environment for all. Paraprofessionals play a critical role here. They can address the needs of students who need extra help with concepts and skills. They can reinforce learning through small-group activities.

In our district, our paraprofessionals are excellent. They are experienced and execute their craft brilliantly. They do not need direction from us; instead, they use their experience and skills to engage those students who need help and encourage them to construct knowledge with support. As our classroom sizes grow, the need for such supportive colleagues will grow in kind.

Paraprofessionals Help Teachers Manage the Classroom

In our small district, our paraprofessionals have known families for years. “I helped his brother,” or “I helped his sister,” or even “I helped his mother and father,” are typical things one might hear from them. Their familiarity with the students and their families creates immediate bonds with them.

We are fortunate in this regard, but all school districts can benefit from having classrooms staffed by more than a teacher, at least some of the time. Teachers have so many things to coordinate during a lesson, it’s helpful to have someone there to help, to redirect, to indicate that instruction is not going as planned.

Paraprofessionals Provide Critical Feedback to Teachers

When I had the privilege of having a paraprofessional in the classroom with me, Ms. Shanfelt was able to provide feedback about students and instruction I consider invaluable. I am sure other teachers have experienced that. As we become more comfortable accepting constructive criticism, we welcome the offerings of critical friends.

Their Value Is Beyond What Is Commonly Thought

I urge leadership to visit classrooms in which paraprofessionals collaborate with teachers and students, so they can understand the value these colleagues bring to the classroom. I urge leadership to actually lead for once, instead of worrying about petty, petulant, irrelevant things that dominate board meetings. I implore them to put the needs of students first, and allow us to best educate the children. The kids need us, all of us. Stop hindering us from doing what we believe we have been called to do.

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