The pandemic rages on as educators everywhere fear for the COVID slide expected in literacy rates when we return to traditional schooling. This is a valid fear, for sure, but it is not something we should be waiting on before we develop a plan. There is an option for schools and districts everywhere that is right under our noses and doesn’t involve pushy publishers or expensive experts. What is this magic pill, you ask? The answer lies within the hearts, hands, and minds of our beloved paraeducators.
Paraeducators are too often the unsung heroes of education. They work, oftentimes, out of the kindness of their hearts for very little pay and recognition. We see them in so many capacities within our schools: special education aide, one-on-one support, push in classroom para, assistant kindergarten teachers, after school tutors, yard duty or cafeteria supervisors. There are those that have been given small groups of students to work with as literacy support or intervention, but these positions are often without training leaving paras frustrated and lacking confidence.
In so many situations well-intentioned administrators and teachers ask the impossible of these wonderful people. The request comes across as... “Here… do this job that I don’t want to do, and figure it out as you go. No, there is no handbook or training that comes with your new position. We believe in a sink or swim model of professional development. If you make it past your first year, then we’ll talk.”
Paras (under the direction of a lead teacher) hold the key to helping pull our students out of the reading slump the pandemic created. Once we recognize this we can develop an amazing intervention that reaches numerous students everyday by taking the following steps:
Take inventory of our school personnel.
Reorganize how we use our paraprofessionals to maximize their effectiveness.
Develop an intervention model that is based on student need and not on program label.
Provide intense, ongoing training to our paraeducators in the 5 pillars of reading instruction (more on this in a later post).
Create a schedule that never pulls students from core instruction in order to receive intervention.
Utilize an assessment protocol that involves school-wide screening and frequent progress monitoring. Provide training to paras in these assessments.
Purchase evidence based, skill specific curricula (not over-priced comprehensive programs) and train paras in how to use them.
Provide direct, explicit instruction by para in assessed skill deficits beginning in kindergarten.
Continue to invest in our paraeducators to grow their knowledge and tool kit so they are equipped to handle a variety of instructional situations.
Paraeducators can be nurtured and trained to take on much of these intervention responsibilities at a fraction of the cost of multiple credentialed teachers. As we invest in their professional knowledge and well-being, they will be more adept and confident. They will become self-sufficient and require less direction from a lead teacher. They will feel more valued as a member of the team dedicated to supporting our struggling readers.
If you are an administrator or teacher leader, look at your data. Do you have a drop in reading scores in your school? Do you have a current plan or approach that you use? Is that approach working? If not - CHANGE IT. Get rid of the mindset...“We’ve always done it this way.” That is a limiting belief. It doesn’t belong in school where kids still need help.
Do you truly value your paras? Do you invest in their professional development so they can be most effective? Have you asked them what they need?
If you are a paraeducator, start the conversation with your trusted colleagues and administrators. Advocate for yourself and your students. If it speaks to you, share this post with coworkers and start talking about the way things COULD be. You are worth so much, and I believe in the impact you can have!
I know this cost-effective model well and have witnessed the magic that happens when schools take this commitment to their paras and students seriously. I’ve worked to resuscitate failing interventions and have also built them from the ground up. I can attest that it’s not a quick process - change takes time. But the time and effort is worth it. Our paraeducators are worth it. And our kids are worth it.
Much love to you,