Could One Answer To Teacher Shortage Be Right Under Our Nose?

Sep 13, 2018

Like most states, Illinois is struggling with a severe teacher shortage. And, also like most states, that shortage is felt most profoundly in the area of special education. There is, however, an army of teacher assistants already on the job. Could they help relieve this shortage?

Decades ago, when these assistants were known as teacher’s aides, they Xeroxed worksheets or ran them through the mimeograph machine, and they could be hired with only a high school diploma or a G.E.D. Nowadays, they need 60 hours of college credit or a certain score on a certification test, and their work is harder than clearing jams from the copy machine. Most administrators refer to them as paraprofessionals.

MaryFran Wessler has worked as a parapro at Peoria High School since 2003.

“Many kids in my district are dealing with very tough situations — trauma, stress, addiction, family instability, food insecurity. They’re coming into our classrooms and very often, the para is the main contact,” she says. “We have to have the strategies to get them to the place where they can feel safe and learn.”

Terry Kays works for the Kaskaskia Special Education District, which serves a three-county area in Southern Illinois. She’s been a parapro since 2004, and this year works with high school students who have autism. Her colleagues help students who are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or intermittent explosive disorder. Like Wessler, she says she’s learned to deal with her district’s most challenging students. “Yes, absolutely. Believe me, we’ve been through some,” Kays says.

Yolanda Harrington works as a parapro in a Champaign elementary school.

“I don’t think they realize the wear and tear that our job has on us physically and mentally,” she says. “I mean, there are kids that get aggressive with us, there are kids we have to pick up, there’s diapering, there’s feeding, there’s kids running away from us. We do the whole gamut.

“I don’t think they realize how much we really do, and how much we really, really care about the kids.”

Harrington, Wessler, Kays — and other parapros I talked to — aren’t complaining about those students; they say the kids are the best part of their job. Because in many districts, paraprofessionals have another, unspoken duty: They’re the workers school districts use to balance the budget.

Paraprofessionals are paid anywhere from $8.25 to about $33 per hour. But on average, even parapros with more than eight years of experience, generally make around $14 an hour. Their benefits vary from district to district. Some offer health insurance, and maybe even cover vision. Others offer health insurance, but at a price so high that a parapro’s entire paycheck goes to cover that cost. Some districts limit parapros to 30 hours a week — specifically to avoid having to provide health insurance.

And it’s not uncommon for school districts to lay off (or “RIF”) parapros every June, then re-hire them when school starts a few months later.

After one such layoff, in 2012, Kaskaskia Special Ed re-called parapros under a new contract that wiped out seniority and past pay raises. Kays, who had been making $26,000 a year, saw her salary cut in half. Most of her paraprofessional colleagues were able to find other work and rejected the district’s offer. But Kays, who was in her late 40s, couldn’t find another job, and was told she was to lose unemployment benefits if she turned it down.

“So all the extras went out the window,” she says. “Since 2012, there’s been no internet service, no TV service, none of that, in my home.”

She drives a 1996 Jeep Cherokee without a functioning A/C. “I just say, ‘Keep running, baby.’”

Superintendents say the reason paraprofessionals tend to get cut is because many of their positions rely on grants that have to be renewed every year (the Individuals with Disabilities Act provides funds special ed staff; Title I and Preschool For All fund support services for at-risk learners). Over the past decade, as state funding for schools declined, administrators felt it was safer to cut staff loose before the annual RIF (reduction in force) deadline than risk having to squeeze money out of their tight budget if a grant fell through.

For the paraprofessionals like Wessler — who says annual layoffs were a way of life in her Peoria district — this strategy meant summers spent in purgatory.

“You would get RIFfed every spring and hired back, hopefully, before school started in the fall, but every year you had to deal with that uncertainty. And I will tell you, as someone who came very close to being pink-slipped several years when I first started, that it was nerve-wracking to think that you might not have a job the next year,” she says. “It shows a lack of respect and a lack of understanding to the value a good para brings to the team.”

The line between duties that require a certified teacher and tasks that can be handled by parapros may be clear on paper, but in the classroom, things get a little fuzzier. As a rule of thumb, teachers present lessons, or “new information.” Then paraprofessionals meet in smaller groups with the students who are struggling, and “re-teach” content the teacher has presented.

Some parapros assist students who have behavioral disorders stay focused on learning, rather than disrupting the classroom. Harrington, for example, currently acts as the rescue squad for one child who has oppositional defiant disorder

“The minute I hear it on the walkie-talkie, I immediately leave the class that I’m in and go to see what’s up,” she says. “If it’s something that I can fix really quickly and he can stay in there, great. But if it’s something that I’ve got to talk him off the ledge, that takes a little more time.”

These intense, intimate, and even crisis interactions give paraprofessionals a special role in students’ lives that teachers — who have to worry about test scores, report cards, and getting through curriculum — may not always have the bandwidth to manage. But is their role a lesser skillset? Or do parapros have abilities that could be turned into teaching?

Bob Chikos, a special ed teacher in Crystal Lake, calls the paraprofessionals he works with “my eyes, ears and arms in a classroom,” saying they do everything from helping physically disabled students use the toilet to simply noticing when a student doesn’t have a pencil. “There always has to be a teacher present, by state law, but a paraprofessional can do a lot of the duties just as a teacher.”

Chikos has done extensive research on the teacher shortage, and he suggests that districts could use parapros like a farm team, cultivating the best ones to become certified teachers. But there’s one major problem: Even if paraprofessionals could take courses to earn an advanced degree in their spare time, they’d still be required to serve one semester as a student teacher — for free.

“But we’re talking about people who didn’t get paid a whole lot to begin with, and then expect them to take four months off from a job, unpaid, to student teach, like, that’s going to eliminate a lot of people from moving up,” Chikos says.

Meanwhile, whatever experience they’ve acquired while working as a parapro earns zero credit toward a teaching certificate.

Dan Cox, superintendent of Staunton schools, says that doesn’t make sense. In his district, one of the services paraprofessionals provide is “Tier 3 interventions,” working in small groups with the students who are farthest behind academically. “That’s important, intensive stuff that we have these people doing, and we spend a lot of time training them to help provide these services to the kids. It’s something that translates well to the classroom,” Cox says.

Tony Sanders is the CEO of the state’s second largest school district, U-46 in Elgin, agrees there should be some way to harness the experience of those workers.

"It would really help school districts across the state if there was a way of utilizing our current talent, investing in them and having them then transition from a paraeducator into a teaching role," Sanders says.

Chikos believes finding a way to make that happen could help Illinois start to solve its teacher shortage on multiple levels.

“Then you have maybe a lot of people who don’t go into being a paraprofessional because they think it’s a dead-end job, they’re worried that it doesn’t lead anywhere,” he says. “So I think it would really help both our special ed (teacher) shortage, and our paraprofessional shortage.”

Of course, not all parapros want to be teachers. After all, unlike teachers, parapros don’t have to make lesson plans or take stacks of essays home to grade. But some, like Yolanda Harrington, have given it a shot. While working as a parapro in Champaign, she enrolled in Eastern Illinois University, taking education courses with the goal of becoming a certified teacher. But upper level education classes are off-limits to students who haven’t passed the Pearson Test of Academic Proficiency, known as TAP. Harrington took the five-hour test — twice — and says both times she fell a few points short.

“And so since I had been going part-time for so long, I just got burnt out.” She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in general studies.

Now, with almost 20 years of experience as a parapro, Harrington earns $18 per hour. She supplements that salary with a second job, working nights at the Champaign YMCA.

The State Board of Education recently released a 27-page report meant to address the teacher shortage. It includes several ideas for lowering licensure requirements, including eliminating that TAP test that discouraged Harrington. But none of the recommendations specifically addressed smoothing the path for paraprofessionals to become teachers. The board is accepting public comments via email at TeachIllinois@isbe.net through Oct. 2.