By Lynn Goss
Walk into any store and you will notice the “Back to School” shelves are filling up with notebooks, pencils, and other school supplies! Are you ready and refreshed? Summer seems to be rushing by, and it won’t be long until ParaEducators start receiving their “Back to School” letters and emails.
You may be among the ParaEducators who already know what your assignment is for the upcoming school year or you may be one who won’t find out until the first day of school, but either way it’s good to start thinking about what professional development you want and need for the next school year.
Professional Development days should be offered at the beginning of the school year and ongoing throughout the year. As a ParaEducator, are you included in those opportunities?
First, I want to share that when I write or type the term ParaEducator, I like to use ParaEducator (with a capital “P” and “E”). I do this because I believe that it emphasizes that ParaEducators are educators and not just “assistants” or “aides.” We play an important role on the educational team, and I believe this helps to convey my belief.
ParaEducator professional development opportunities vary greatly. Many schools readily include and pay their ParaEducators to participate in professional development alongside the teachers. A new law encourages districts to take the wise course and provide ParaEducators with professional development. That law is the most recent reauthorization of ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965), also known as ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act). Signed on December 10, 2015, by President Obama, ESSA is quite complex.
ESSA (like previous versions of the law) is organized into titles which are similar to chapters in a book. And of the nine Titles in ESSA, several address professional development for ParaEducators.
Let’s start with Title VIII which defines the term ‘‘professional development’’ to mean activities that ”are an integral part of school and local educational agency strategies for providing educators (including teachers, principals, other school leaders, specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, and, as applicable, early childhood educators) with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable students to succeed in a well-rounded education and to meet the challenging state academic standards.” It further defines professional development as “sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.” This is especially important because we know that while some ParaEducators receive professional development, some receive very little or they are offered training that is not relevant to their position. So many times paras are “allowed” or invited to attend training for teachers but find that it has nothing to do with their specific roles and responsibilities.
There are also opportunities in Title I which most of you know to be the Title that aims to serve our most vulnerable students. Title I specifically lists ParaEducators as eligible recipients of professional development as it relates to schoolwide programs, targeted assistance programs, parent and family engagement, and English language learners.
Most of the opportunities for ParaEducators lie in Title II through schoolwide professional development. The law not only includes ParaEducators as appropriate recipients of professional development, but it also says you should have a say in the plan that gets submitted to the state for your school to receive the subgrants. Your school shall (must) have meaningful consult with teachers, principals, other school leaders, ParaEducators (including organizations representing such individuals), and specialized instructional support personnel (SISP) in regard to professional development and the Title II plan. Your union also has a say in these plans as noted in the language “organizations representing such individuals.”
Start or keep the conversation going with your principal, teachers and other school personnel. Every school is at a different place regarding the development of the local plan. Some schools are going to embrace the involvement of ParaEducators under this new requirement while others will want to write the subgrant in the manner in which they have been accustomed to under previous versions of the law. Knowing your district and how to approach them is essential for the success of meaningful involvement and avoiding tension.
All of the new opportunities in ESSA are certainly a reason to celebrate and to start or keep the conversations going! Think about these important questions: What is on your wish list for professional development? For what will you advocate? Whom will you engage in this conversation? What will help you be the best ParaEducator so you can continue to be a vital member of the education team while achieving student growth and success?
Join me as I continue to advocate for targeted and ongoing professional development that all ParaEducators need and deserve! Become a member of the NEA edCommunities Paraeducator Institute Group to share your ideas and success stories.
This column is also available on the NEA website.