First-Year Early Childhood Special Education Teachers and Their Assistants: "Teaching along with Her"

By Appl, Dolores | Teaching Exceptional Children, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview
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First-Year Early Childhood Special Education Teachers and Their Assistants: "Teaching along with Her"


Appl, Dolores, Teaching Exceptional Children


Cathy, Kelly, and Lisa are early childhood special education (ECSE) teachers in inclusive, classroom-based programs. Each of them worked with assistant teachers during their first year as ECSE teachers, and that experience resulted in difficulties of varying degrees. For Cathy, those difficulties were most profound. During her first months of teaching, she expressed feelings of isolation in spite of having an assistant in her classroom. In a telephone interview (11/01/97), she said, "I'm by myself. . . It's like [I] don't have anyone to talk to." When asked about her assistant, she replied, "When I am talking to her, I'm usually trying to explain things, not to get suggestions."

What are the reasons behind Cathy's feelings of isolation, as well as obstacles encountered by Kelly and Lisa? How can similar difficulties be addressed by other beginning teachers or within teacher-preparation programs? How can beginning teachers and their assistants develop positive working relationships, which, in turn, can potentially decrease the pressures of first-year teaching?

Cathy, Kelly, and Lisa are graduates of a master's program in ECSE who participated in an in-depth qualitative study during their first year of teaching preschoolers with and without special needs (see Table 1 for data collected and abbreviations). Each of the three teachers worked with paraprofessionals, primarily their assistant teachers. Paraprofessional is a "generic term used to describe a wide range of service providers" (Hans & Korfmacher, 2002, p. 4). Paraprofessionals work under the supervision of certified or licensed individuals and may or may not have a college education (French & Pickett, 1997; Friend & Cook, 2003; Hans & Korfmacher; Striffler, 1993). Other terms used to describe the roles of paraprofessionals include pameducators; aides; technicians; and classroom, instructional, teacher, or therapy assistants (Drecktrah, 2000; French & Pickett; Friend & Cook). Those alternative descriptors may be more effective in establishing positive relationships, given Striffler's caution (1993) that the term paraprofessional may fail to convey the respect needed to promote team rapport. Nonetheless, the word is used generically in the literature to encompass a variety of roles filled by individuals working under the supervision of professionals. In this article paraprofessional is used when referring to those individuals in general and assistant or assistant teacher when referring to the specific individuals working with Cathy, Kelly, and Lisa.

The use of paraprofessionals in early intervention and special education is steadily increasing because of the rise in the number of children with disabilities being served and the shortage of qualified professionals (Bill, 2003; Drecktrah, 2000; French & Picket!, 1997; Giangreco & Broer, 2003; Palma, 1994; Striffler, 1993; Yates & Hains, 1997). Some infant and toddler programs purposely employ paraprofessionals who may be able to "bridge the social distance" between families and agencies (Hans & Korfmacher, 2002, p. 5). Sometimes parents work as paraprofessionals in such roles as service providers or coordinators. The goal is to develop strong relationships with the families being served by employing individuals from the same community or cultural background who have experienced similar life situations, such as poverty, teen pregnancy, or single parenthood (Hans & Korfmacher; Musick & Stott, 2000; Striffler, 1993). In such circumstances the qualities of the paraprofessional can ideally complement those of the professional and can provide an element of social validity to the program tStriifler, 1993).

Employing paraprofessionals produces economic and philosophical benefits, but the practice also has drawbacks. Hans and Korfmacher (2002) report several possible issues, including the possibilities that paraprofessionals may

* Lack formal education in child development.

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