Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lessons In Unexpected Places

This essay was originally published on The New York Times, Schoolbook:

In Praise of Paraprofessionals

This is an accident, and it is a problem that is easy to fix,” Ms. Javier told me when I thanked her and apologized to her on behalf of one of our students, who had left his backpack filled with his baseball equipment at the park.

We were already on the bus back to school from our field day when he remembered and tried to make a run for it. Ms. Javier slipped off the bus and headed back to the park, solving the problem in an instant by simply going the extra mile. When she met us back at the school, backpack in hand, she was smiling, as she always is.

“You know, with these kids, their possessions are a big deal. It’s not like he would just go and get another.” Ms. Javier tells me what I already know, but she is the one who really understood enough to see it as worth her time to get off the bus and go back to the park.

Ms. Javier (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, as are the names of all students in my posts) was a paraprofessional in my class this year. Four of my students’ special education classifications this year have qualified them to have a paraprofessional.

A paraprofessional, commonly abbreviated as “para,” is a teaching assistant whose primary responsibility is to one or several students whose Individualized Education Plans, or I.E.P.s, require that they have extra support.

My class this year had two paraprofessionals, one who scribed for a student and another who translated my lessons and provided support for the beginner English Language Learners (E.L.L.s) in my class.

This was my first experience having a para in my class. I was tentative about the arrangement, not fully understanding the role that would be played by these other adults in the classroom — not sure how I should change my lessons to work them into it, or how helpful they would be to my students. It turned out to be an experience that benefited both my students and me.

Ms. Javier is the para for the E.L.L. students, and from the very first day in the classroom, she dove deeply into her responsibilities. She read my lessons and previewed my worksheets, translating important words and creating glossaries for her students to keep on their desks.

She noticed students who were not assigned to her, but who she thought she could help, and took them under her wing without being asked. She stayed after school every day to help the special education coordinator in my school organize his files, and she volunteered her personal time to work at the Saturday tutoring program.

Ms. Javier had gone above and beyond each and every day for the entire year (and probably for most of her life). She seamlessly fit into the class and anticipated every need that we could have. When I would think about doing something, she would beam and show me that she had already done it.

A lot of people go the extra mile. Ms. Javier has done it selflessly, without hope for reward, and without a hidden agenda. When she is asked to take on yet another task without any form of compensation or promotion, she is eager to do so, eager to touch more kids’ lives. She truly believes in even the most difficult students. Sometimes she will be asked to work with a particularly troubled boy in another class, and when he runs down the hall in a tantrum, she is right there behind him, smiling.

“That boy has a lot of energy,” she says, where others would sigh in exhaustion and frustration. Ms. Javier keeps going back, treating the students like they are her own children.

We have all learned from her this year. My students have benefited from having such a kind, gentle, caring individual in their lives, tirelessly helping them and supporting them. The school has benefited from the many hours she has donated, and the enthusiasm with which she has committed herself to learning new things and becoming more of an asset to the school. And I have benefited from seeing someone so graceful and joyful each morning, reacting to situations with a generous outlook that I wish that I had.

“In the morning, I think about my problems for a little while, and then I put them in the drawer and start my day,” she explains, when I ask her incredulously how she maintains such an unrelentingly positive outlook. “You have to enjoy your life.”

Paraprofessionals are an underappreciated group. The way that they can affect a student and a class is not something that can be measured with any ease. Often they work with some of the more challenging kids and switch students throughout the year, adapting to new situations to meet a new set of needs.

Because of their impermanence, people often think of paraprofessionals as replaceable — one may be substituted for another from day to day. But at graduation this year, Ms. Javier sat on the stage and cried while she watched the students that she had helped get there.

“Do you think next year I will have a student like Allie?” she asked me, mourning the loss of one. To the students, she was not replaceable — and certainly not to me.


  1. After reading this again, I was reminded of what an amazing year we did have. Javier taught us valuable lessons about compassion and relentless to make a positive difference in the lives of the students she served. An amazing individual who the students knew she could count on. WJS

  2. She was dearly loved by everyone especially me. She is very sweet and understanding i miss KASA so much
    love Rokhaya