Walking in a Paraprofessional's Shoes
I think we’ve all heard the expression about walking in someone else’s shoes for the day. However, we don’t get the opportunity to do this very often. One of my dear friends had an interesting opportunity a couple weeks ago that she was telling me about. She says this was the hardest job she has ever had to do. Here’s her story of walking in someone else’s shoes.
Hi everyone! I’m a primary teacher in Canada. In my class, I have a little girl who has severe learning needs. I will call her Joanne for anonymity. In Canada, kids with severe special needs get 1:1 support from an Educational Assistant or Paraprofessional (Para) within the regular classroom. The Para might occasionally pull the student out of class for breaks and assist the child in the washroom. However, the goal is to stay in the classroom for as long as possible.
I was able to work with Joanne for two days straight when the regular Para was unable to be at school. My school called in a substitute teacher to cover my class. Since Joanne has such extreme learning needs with a specific schedule, it was easier to call a substitute teacher to teach my class than to arrange for a substitute for Joanne’s Para. The school figured having a familiar person would be comforting to Joanne.
Over the course of the two days, I learned a lot. For starters, people who work with kids who have special needs are champions. They are working to give all kids dignity and strategies for success. Every day, they have to make split-second decisions to help calm temper meltdowns, adapt work, and help the child interact with their peers in successful ways.
Since I was not Joanne’s regular Para, Joanne had countless meltdowns throughout the day. I ended up sitting on the floor with Joanne more times than I could count, just waiting for Joanne to finish her meltdown and stand up.
At the end of my two days, I came away with some epiphanies:
Tracing Worksheets are not enough. Prior to this experience, I would simply create worksheets that allowed Joanne to trace letters and words. I thought I was so clever! At the beginning of the year, Joanne loved these exercises, but like every kid, Joanne progressed. She quickly mastered tracing and was bored of these worksheets. I saw first hand how upset Joanne would get when she saw another tracing activity. I have now committed to making interactive activities for Joanne, such as velcro activities or hands-on manipulative activities.
Other students should be involved. I saw that Joanne wanted to be with her peers, but didn’t yet have the skills to know how to interact with them. I’m now asking others students to approach Joanne and initiate activities.
Communication is more than words. Even though Joanne is non-verbal, communication has so many other forms. After being with Joanne for two days, I started to pick up on things Joanne did for communication. For one, Joanne would grab my hand and direct it to an object that she wants. Joanne communicated that she wanted to paint during free time by guiding me to the paint supplies.
First _________, then ________”. I learned the beauty of the phrase, “First _______, then ________”. I think we’ve all used this phrase at one time or another: “First Math, then snack”, “First clean up, then home time”, etc. As teachers, we use this for big-ticket items. However, I learned that for some kids with special needs, this phrase needs to be used in much smaller increments. I found myself saying things like, “First stand up, then walk” or “First apples, then water”.
This was the hardest job I have done in a long time. However, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything because it has helped me reflect on my own teaching practices and I am already making the necessary changes.”
There you have it! A tale from one of my fellow teachers. Have any of you had an opportunity to walk is someone else’s shoes? Or have you had the chance to work for an extended period of time with a student who has special needs? I would love to hear about your experiences! And I can pass along any tidbits to my teacher-friend!