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To thrive, students need more than just a good teacher

The overlooked paraeducator

In the long and merited discussion of teacher pay, one group of educators in the classroom has been forgotten: paraeducators. These are the people working in and out of classrooms to fill the gaps to help ensure that vulnerable students receive a quality education and a chance at a good life.

Many classrooms would not run, and some schools could not function, without paraeducators. In special education they work one-to-one with students or as whole class support. In general education, they work with students needing extra support to master foundational skills like pronunciation, reading, and math in one-on-one and small group settings.

The pay is low

In the Olympia School District (OSD), paraeducators start at $21.29/hour and earn the maximum rate of $25.12/hour after 15 years. Paraeducator jobs are generally 30-35 hours a week, and a school year is 180 days. A 15-year veteran working 35 hour weeks will earn a meager $31,651 a year. For a paraeducator with fewer years, working the same hours, the pay is much less. The average annual salary for a paraeducator in Washington was only $24,589.

The value is high

I work in classes for the severely handicapped and I know that they cannot function without paraeducators. Paraeducators help students eat their food, read, write, color, change their clothes, use the bathroom, calm down when upset, physically stay in class and participate in play during PE.

Students in general education classrooms with paraeducators are better off, too. Not only do paraeducators support and redirect their assigned students, they also take responsibility for redirecting other students, which helps keep the whole class on track.

When teachers are absent, paraeducators play a major role in managing classes. When I’m called on to serve as a substitute teacher, I’m relieved when a class has a paraeducator because I know that will help me teach more effectively. Conversely, at times when a teacher is out, I’ve been assigned as a paraeducator and I had to step in to lead instruction because of an ineffective substitute teacher.

Paraeducators play a crucial role in ensuring that teachers can teach

At the elementary level, paraeducators also fill vital roles outside of the classroom. They staff the crosswalks so students get to and from school safely. They supervise lunches, including opening milks, wraps and a dozen other tasks so students can eat. They supervise recesses, keeping students safe and instilling values like sharing and respecting boundaries.

It’s time

Paraeducators play a crucial role in ensuring that teachers can teach—for a wage well below their value to student learning. It’s time to recognize the value of those who engage students, teach them skills, keep them safe, and bring smiles to their faces every single day. It’s time to pay paraeducators a wage commensurate with their value.

Steven Marquardt is a contributor to Works in Progress who works as a paraeducator and substitute teacher in Olympia schools.


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