Paraeducators and Teachers: Shifting Roles

Article excerpt

A third-grade teacher reported that the paraeducator assigned to her classroom on behalf of a child with significant cognitive and health needs usually helps the child with adapted lessons. But sometimes the paraeducator gives a spelling test, or assists the entire class with math assignments while the teacher works one-to-one or in a small group with the special education student (French & Chopra, 1999).

A high school biology teacher explained that a student with cerebral palsy would be unable to participate in either the lecture or the lab portions of his advanced biology class without help. Whereas the student relies on assistance from his classmates during cooperative activities, there are times when it is inappropriate for students to provide assistance. Then, the paraeducator becomes essential for the student to participate in the meaningful work of the class.

These are two examples of the changing roles of both teachers and paraeducators, particularly in inclusive classrooms. This article explores these roles, delineates responsibilities, and offers practical suggestions for educators and paraeducators in inclusive programs.

What Are Some Changes in Pareducators' Roles?

Paraeducator roles have changed rather dramatically over time. Originally, schools employed nonprofessional personnel to perform clerical and routine tasks in classrooms or school offices (e.g., taking attendance, handling paperwork and money, correcting papers). A book entitled Secretaries for Teachers advocated freeing teachers from routine and repetitive tasks, so they could spend more time with students-teaching (Turney, 1962). During the 1970s, many schools employed playground, hall, lunchroom, and bus loading zone supervisors to free teachers from "duties" that interfered with their planning time. Sometimes the same individual would work in clerical or instructional roles between duties.

By the mid-1990s, paraeducator roles had shifted dramatically. Now, paraeducators spend most of their working hours with small groups of students or individuals (French, 1998). They read to students and listen to students read. Paraeducators assist students with health care, personal needs, assignments, projects, and small-group work; and they assist entire classes in which students with disabilities are included.

Teachers, families, and paraeducators all reported that paraeducators are really "teachers" because what they do is, in fact, instruction (French & Chopra, 1999).

How Have Thers' Roles Changed?

It is undeniable. The presence of a paraeducator who provides instructional support to students changes the role of the teacher. Some teachers welcome the changes. They recognize that it would be impossible for special education students to thrive in general education classes without personal assistance. Teachers also recognize that a full caseload of students means that they, working alone, cannot possibly provide an appropriate amount of personal assistance to each student. Teachers have described their reasons for having paraeducator assistance as follows:

To help me out as much as possible.

To help me meet my students' needs.

To help the teacher in any way.

To teach the kids exactly the way I want them to be taught, to be patient.

To be able to fill in all the gaps.

Clearly, teachers regard the work that paraeducators do as necessary to their success and to the success of their students (French, 1998).

Teachers also know that the assistance they receive from paraeducators has its price. It means that they lose some of the personalized one-to-one contact with certain of their students. Sometimes, this loss of contact also means sacrificing some control. One teacher said wistfully, "Sometimes she does more individual instruction with the kids than I do. She is the teacher when I'm not there. She's teaching where I left off" (French, 1998). …