As a Paraprofessional, My Role Is Undervalued, Underpaid and Too Often, Forgotten

As a Paraprofessional, My Role Is Undervalued, Underpaid and Too Often, Forgotten

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Paraprofessionals — often called paras — play an integral role in classrooms. We support students by helping them meet their goals. We help teachers with lessons and share feedback on what supports work best for the students we serve. We help families understand the services and scaffolds their child is receiving.

Ultimately, we help make classrooms more inclusive.

Paraprofessionals are specially trained, credentialed employees hired to work alongside students — typically learners with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) — under the supervision of the classroom teacher. Contracts and arrangements vary, but by design, the role of a para can change year over year. That comes with the job.

Sometimes we’re assigned to a student who has an IEP outlining specific goals, and other times we’re assigned to a classroom to assist the teacher and support students. Some years, we follow a student to the next grade level, while other years, we are assigned to a new student with an entirely different set of needs.

I’ve been a para in New York City for eight years and in that time, I’ve worked as a behavioral para, a language para and a toileting para (assisting with toilet training). I’d like to think I’ve significantly improved the learning experience for the students I’ve worked with and for the teachers I’ve taught alongside. Many of my colleagues, other paraprofessionals, are cornerstones of their classroom communities. Some people even say we’re the “backbone of the classroom.”

Yet we are undervalued, underpaid and often forgotten when it comes to staff development. This needs to change.

Feeling Undervalued

Working with children is something I’ve always felt called to do. For me, becoming a para was a way to see if I had what it takes to be in the classroom. I quickly learned that I do have what it takes and that I can make a difference in the lives of students. I haven’t looked back since.

I can tell you from experience, a paraprofessional’s work is mentally, emotionally and physically taxing. Over the course of each year, I develop strong relationships with the students I serve, especially with the one I’m assigned to. I’ve worked with students who have autism, behavioral challenges, learning disabilities and more — and every time a student is in crisis, I’m by their side. It takes empathy to support them in communicating their emotions, patience to help them self-regulate and flexibility to morph into whatever they need in the moment.

On top of that, I’m often pulled from my assignment to solve problems — a staff shortage in the lunchroom, the absence of another para or even an overflowing closet that needs to be organized. I oblige, even though sometimes what I’m asked to do is outside of the scope of my contract. I do it because I’m here to ensure that students are adequately supervised and supported. But gratitude is scarce.

Even though the work paraprofessionals do is critical and is proven to improve student learning, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been thanked and it often feels like my voice is the last to be heard in shaping routines, classroom management practices and instruction, even for students I have worked with for years.

It’s hard to work in a system that devalues my work.

I wish more people recognized that I’m a professional employee with credentials. To become a para in my state, I needed to get certified. There’s a process that involves securing a nomination from a principal, passing an assessment, completing a series of trainings, and submitting a slew of paperwork. After completing these steps, I was officially hired by the New York City Department of Education, assigned to my school and sent into the classroom.

I show up everyday with enthusiasm and passion for my work and with respect for the students I serve and the educators I support. I feel I deserve that same level of respect. It’s tough to say exactly why paraprofessionals and other support staff aren’t getting it, but it’s demoralizing. And, I can tell you firsthand that gratitude, recognition and appreciation go a long way.

The first time I felt seen in a classroom was when one of my teachers sat me down and asked me what role I wanted to play within the classroom. To her, I was not just Mr. Parra, a paraprofessional assigned to one student, I was her colleague and she saw me as her equal. Her words truly helped to shape the way I see myself within the classroom. I am not just there to prevent a crisis. I am there to help kids learn and my voice and opinion matter just as much as the other adults in the room.

Being Underpaid

I have worked as a para for eight years, yet my salary is still insufficient. I’m not alone, paras in my city and across the country aren’t making enough to live on. When I was hired as a para in 2016, my salary was $27,000 and my bi-weekly paycheck was about $800. After paying off bills and groceries I had around $150 left, if I was lucky. Since then, my salary has increased to $47,000, but I am still living paycheck to paycheck. According to a livable wage calculator developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a single person living in New York City needs about $53,000 before taxes, so it’s no wonder I’m having a hard time.

In September 2022, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) contract expired and the mayor’s office and the UFT began contract negotiations on behalf of the nearly 200,000 members the union represents. In June 2023, after a year of negotiations, a deal was struck.

In our new contract, the starting salary for a paraprofessional moved from $28,000 to $34,000, with the top salary capped at a little over $56,000. My union hailed this a victory when in reality, these pay increases left many paras, myself included, continuing to live paycheck to paycheck.

In the past year I have had to heavily consider taking on a second job in order to make ends meet. Let’s think about that for a moment. Principals, superintendents, union leaders and others hail paras as a pillar of our schools and classrooms. They praise us for going above and beyond our contract duties and thank us for our service but the gratitude they express isn’t reflected in our pay. Instead, many of us are left working side gigs and applying for government assistance.

There is no doubt in my mind that I love the job. But that love will not pay my bills and allow me to live. I am told that the work I do is essential to the school community and yet I’m an overworked employee who lives closer to homelessness than I would like to admit.

Forgotten During Professional Development

The work I do as a paraprofessional requires preparation, ongoing support and continued professional development opportunities.

Before stepping foot into a classroom for the first time, I remember sitting in a room at our district offices with other newly hired paraprofessionals. We were told: “You will be working with students with many needs, any questions just ask the classroom teacher.” There was no training or even discussion of the types of scenarios we’d soon encounter. Without substantial support or professional development, we were sent into the classroom.

During my first year, I was a floating para. I moved between students, sometimes as a behavioral para for a student with emotional challenges and other times as a bilingual para for a student who needed translation to access the curriculum. My students often had violent outbursts, ran around the school and would tear apart the classroom. Most days, there was a crisis I wasn’t adequately prepared for.

Many of the training and professional development workshops and sessions I have been included in are designed for classroom teachers and focus on instruction. I have learned and grown from those, but there is also a need that is not being fulfilled. In talking with many of my colleagues, there is a yearning for professional learning opportunities centered on the work we do — for example, a session on how to interact and build relationships with nonverbal students or how to support a student in crisis. Where are the professional development opportunities that can help us take ownership of our work and feel like valued members of the classroom community? Paraprofessional training and professional development needs to improve. We deserve better.

I plan to continue showing up for the students and families I serve to help my school community thrive. But it’s difficult to work in a system that doesn’t value, appreciate or compensate me fairly.

So I ask, with the expectations that are placed on the backs of paraprofessionals like me, how much longer can a system continue to disregard our voices, pay us insufficient wages and fail to adequately prepare, train and support our sector of the education workforce? How much longer will the status quo suffice?

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