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SWIFT Talk Blog

Re-imagining education.

Change is the Only Constant: Being a Flexible Para Educator

“What do I do now that both of my boys are in school?” I thought to myself as the bus rode away.  “Start exercising?  Naw.  Watch Ellen and eat BonBons?  Hmm….”

That’s when I reached out to the local administration of my son’s school.  After discussing employment opportunities, I decided to become a full-time para educator, a position in Special Education that I am certified to teach.  My desire to work with students and staff was fueled when I discovered the school was transitioning to an inclusive classroom approach.  Awesome!  This opportunity was a bonus because I have been curious about how to be involved with positive change for all students in our local schools.  

Through discussions with classroom teachers, current para educators, administrators, and my family, I felt ready to handle this new approach.  Bring on Monday through Friday, 8:05am to 3:05pm. 

Ring!  
School begins.  
And BAM! 
Reality hits.  

I had plans and colorful schedules at the ready.  What I didn’t have as a personal characteristic was flexibility.  No matter how prepared I believed I was to work with the student whose IEP I was assigned to, the most important lesson I learned that year was to be flexible.

What does flexible look like?  Is it an inherent or innate characteristic?  Is it a personality trait?  Can it be taught?  Maybe a blend of all of these factors; I don’t know.  What I do know for sure is that a flexible para educator must be ready to embrace the idea of constant change. 

But how could I become flexible and ready for constant change?  I identified four behaviors that helped me:

1) Be an active observer
2) Be able to analyze each situation without personal reaction
3) Be knowledgeable in choice making with and for the students
4) Recognize and respect the role of the classroom teacher as the leader and primary decision maker for ALL students in the classroom

Be an active observer:  Continually gather information regarding the physical and emotional states of students you support as well as all students in the class.  Watch what is happening in class in relation to other students.  Know what the lead teacher’s expectations are at that moment.  Step back and watch instead of hovering.

Be able to analyze without personal reaction:  For example, at a recess time with extreme weather, consider whether students are comfortable with the conditions rather than basing the decision to go outside on your personal preference.  Do students whose IEPs you support typically participate in small groups in the classroom when the class divides for group work?  Is that decision based on your feelings or the direction of the classroom teacher?  Who is making the decisions? Encouraging and expecting the classroom teacher to lead these decisions will promote a greater sense of belonging for all students in the class.

Be knowledgeable in choice making:  Do you and the students you support have ways for consistent choice making?  Are the classroom teacher and the rest of the students in the class aware of these strategies and encouraged to use them?  Do you have a “tool box” to work with so that students with disabilities remain within the classroom while you are adapting to their needs?  Know when to reach out for support and to whom.  

Recognize and respect the role of the classroom teacher: While you may be assigned to a particular student in a classroom, remember that the classroom teacher is the leader and primary decision maker for ALL students.  Seek the teacher’s input and follow his or her lead.  Look for opportunities to collaborate and share insight regarding all students’ learning and participation.  If any and all students in a class ask for your assistance, and the classroom teacher provides equal support to students with and without disabilities, you can end each day with the feeling of a job well done.

I found the best way to be flexible is to embrace the input of the team and the variety of skills and knowledge brought to the table.  Working with students, their families, the classroom teacher, and specialists within your building will help you, as a para educator, to be the best you can be and promote positive outcomes for all students.

And then when you go home, like me, change into comfy clothes, watch your favorite show, relax, and know that tomorrow you can count on one thing to remain the same…CHANGE.

- Janet Gnall

I am currently a para-educator at our local elementary school. After being a stay at home mom and keeping up my teaching certificate I decided to head back to the classroom. I felt a connection with the inclusionary model which I am now experiencing. My family and I are saturated with hockey and love the winter! Bring on the snow and ice :)