In praise of paras

Thursday, January 12, 2017
Paraeducators Julie Hartman and Jody Weber work with some of their students. / Photo courtesy of Iowa Department of Education

Alice Williams was having a terrible day. OK, a particularly awful day. A parent-teacher meeting went poorly and she was very low, anticipating a tearful drive home.

“Don’t worry, tomorrow will be better,” chimed in one of her paraeducators, or paras. And as the third grade teacher from Nodaway Valley Elementary School recalled this moment two weeks later, tears formed in her eyes.

“They are so loyal, to me and to the students,” Williams said. “I couldn’t do it without them.”

Williams is but one teacher in the state of Iowa, but resoundingly speaks for all when she says, “We love our paras.”

“They are my left hand, my right hand, my eyes and my ears,” said special education teacher Dayna Jensen. “Those paras jump in and help me and help the students often without being asked. The paras will catch things that I don’t. It’s another adult truly attuned to the classroom. And that dedication goes home where they often study up on things. That is above and beyond.”

Williams, Jensen and third grade teacher Jodi Berlau share their paras – two dynamos by the names of Jody Weber and Julie Hartman – in this west Iowa community.

“They are selfless,” Belau said. “They do so much, including a lot of things they don’t get thanked for. They work tirelessly, and come in the next morning and encourage us – despite all of their hard work.

“Julie, for instance, will always say ‘it’s been a good day, it will be a good day tomorrow.’ Julie knows which kids need a bit more help, and she will pull them aside without prompting and say, ‘let’s go read together.’”

Such comments could be made at any school in Iowa. Educators from all 99 counties attest to the can-do spirits, the grit and determination paras have come to be known for.

“It’s amazing the loyalty they show their students,” Williams said. “They want the students to be successful. They are wholly dedicated.”

Jensen describes her paras as an integral part of the team.

“I often include the paras in the planning,” she said. “At the IEP (Individualized Education Programs) meetings, I try to make sure the paras are there. The paras are idea people: they look for material, they scour the building for materials. They fill in the gaps. I even have had paras help me with progress monitoring.”

Williams said the paras bring a holistic approach to their work.

“They even look at a kid with no coat and say, ‘let’s go get a coat,’” she said. “They are a second set of eyes. They see things that maybe I will miss.”

“It’s common for a para to come up to me and say, ‘I was noticing today that So-and-So isn’t really reading. Is it OK if I sit with him next time?’” Belau said. “They come up with classroom management ideas and I will think, ‘duh, why didn’t I think of that?’”

Perhaps most striking is how the paras rise to the occasion when things go wrong, being especially adept at de-escalating a child who is acting up. But as opposed to resting on laurels – as they certainly could – the paras always reflect upon each problem that arises.

“Jody is like, ‘what could I have done to prevent this?’” Belau said. “And then she goes home and reads about a child’s behaviors so that she feels she is better equipped to handle problems.”

“There are less dramatic examples,” Jensen said. “There was a time when a student who was on a restricted diet didn’t have any snacks available to him. The para went out and spent her own money to get gluten-free food.

“While there is occasionally big drama, it’s the little things, too. The paras just quietly go about their work. We couldn’t do it without them.”

For their part, the paras are humble about their work, which they both find cathartic in many ways.

“I guess I am particularly drawn to the kids who need the extra help,” Hartman said. “I have a son who has similar problems, and I have lived it for the last 23 years. It is very rewarding that I can actually help. My original goal was to help just one child, now it’s much greater.”

“Having grown up in a small town, I never liked school because I was bullied a lot,” Weber said. “For me, my work is making a difference in my life as well as the students. Bullying tears you down. They deserve to grow up in a safe school environment.”

But the paras know their chief function: provide sufficient help to ensure each student is being successful academically.

“I have been working with a student who was struggling in math and then – his scores went up!” Hartman said, pumping her fist into the air. “You could see that light bulb go off.”

Weber agreed.

“One of the most important and gratifying things is seeing the kids light up when they get something,” she said.

Teacher Williams again wells up with tears.

“Good or bad, Julie is always there,” Williams said. “She is always there.”