When Life Chose Me to be a Para

3 Oct

I briefly chronicled my professional exploits elsewhere.  But with all of the ruckus about paraeducators and what I think of them, I figured now would be a good time to go back to those days and color in a bit more detail.  Just so you know. 


I originally wanted to begin being a para earlier, but was tempted and seduced into trying my luck as a full fledged EBD teacher who was supposedly supervising a couple of different paras.  This was a disaster.  One para was a mother who was just looking for a little extra work and money, and the other was an ex-music teacher.  Thankfully Music Teacher knew a thing or two and supported me and propped me up in ways she’ll never know.  The Mother was more clueless than me, which was very bad.  I really had no idea what to do with either of them.  It was a divine act of mercy that got me out of there, even though being let go was seriously demoralizing.


The next summer I was working at Arbys and going to school to finish that Master’s.  I was taking a class on instructional strategies that included folks from the MR, LD and interrelated disciplines.  You could invariably tell who the EBD folks were, because we were the ones smoking during class breaks!  It was during these breaks that I met Juliet.  Ah,yes.  Juliet with the long and gorgeous red hair.  Jane will have at me for writing that, but oh, well…


Juliet walked up to me and asked me if I was looking for a job, and I told her I was.  It just so happened she was looking for a para.  Thing was, it was 50 or so miles from where I lived.  She said if I was interested, I could call the coordinator of the psychoed outpost, which I did.  I interviewed with the coordinator and the Magnolia County director of personnel.  I told them of my history and they were very interested in me.  They sort of wondered if I was that interested in them but I was determined not to seduced away again. 


My wife Jane and I were engaged and living together at the time.  Jane had a good job making good money and I was a student working at Arbys.  So in essence Jane partially subsidized my living expenses which I could never have afforded on what I was paid as a para.


 Juliet also subsidized me in a way.  Yes, the lovely crimson haired young woman lived less than 10 miles from where I was.  So we ended up car pooling, meaning she drove most of the time.  I would meet her every morning a little after 6 a.m. at a shopping center, and she would drive us to the psychoed in Magnolia County by 7:30. 


Juliet was just a few years younger than me, and had been a para just a year before I met her.  She had been a para for a teacher who resigned in the middle of the year so Juliet took over.  She had a degree in psychology and was in the same Master’s degree program that I was.  She was a para who became a teacher, and I was a teacher who became a para.  We were equals in almost every way, except of course she was my boss and got paid twice as much as me. 


Juliet and I were teaching middle school aged students with severe emotional disorders in a psychoed outpost.  Georgia has a network of psycheducational schools just for students with very severe emotional behavior issues.  There are center schools and then there are outpost schools.  Magnolia County had a small outpost which had a coordinator, a social worker, 4 teachers and 5 paras as well as an itinerant art therapist.  All of the paras who were with me that year have since become special ed teachers.  It really was that special of a place.


Since we were so small, we were also a very cohesive unit.  I learned from paras who had been there awhile, as well as from Juliet herself.  In many ways I had the most ideal situation a teacher/para could possibly have.  Juliet and I had a good relationship all around.  With the hours of commuting, we had a lot of time to talk and communicate.  To people who know me now, it might be difficult to believe I could be a good subordinate to a woman younger than myself who had really no greater depth of knowledge than I did.  But I had no problems with it.  I’ve been in the military, and have no problems with taking orders and following direction. 


Juliet was not a hard supervisor at all.  The role of supervisor was one she was just getting used to, herself.  I made it as easy as possible on her…most of the time.  I really never forgot who was in charge, so she never had to think about it.  We were just very comfortable with each other and had lots of respect for each other.


Paras seem to really grouse about the differential in authority between themselves and the teacher.  I have tried to explain this as a teacher.  Let me try to put it in perspective of a para, at least how I understood it.  Mush of it goes along with my military background and training.  Having superior rank does not mean a person is superior personally.  It has nothing to do with the quality of character or even technical skills.  In the military, every person in the squad has a specialty and a job which they perform with greater skill than anyone else on the team.  The officers can not do it all.  They coordinate and make sure things get done amongst all the parts.


Juliet was not better or smarter than me.  But she was higher on the totem pole, and I followed her and supported her all the way, no matter if I agreed or not.  Most of the time, we did agree.  But not always.  I sometimes thought she was too verbal with the boys and talked and lectured too much.   I didn’t always like all of the activities we did and thought a lot of them were silly and dumb.  But you know what?  I carried out her will because it was her job to think of the stuff and my job to carry it out.  It helped that I liked her, even though I did not always agree with her.  We had a good relationship.  She never lorded her position over me, and listened to what I had to say.  I let her know when I thought things needed some tweaking and we worked together.


This cohesion worked for the betterment of the students.  Juliet and I were on the same page.  The students knew that I was not going to be able to be played against her.  Our classroom was a safer place because of that.  We could actually enjoy these challenging students together and when things got tough we each had the other to go to. 


Because we had the relationship that we did, Juliet gave me lots of opportunities to try new things.  I added to the behavior management plan, and enhanced it with visual charts and tracking gimmicks.  I instituted a sort of token lottery system that also incorporated academics into it.  IOW, a student could earn a reinforcer for so many tokens but first they had to answer an academic question.  I also planned and delivered all of the science lessons we did, which gave Juliet a sizable planning block plus it was one less planning period she had to do.


I’m feeling the need to write more about this, but I’ll extend in another chapter.  I think the most important “take away” points are:

– I had a good relationship with my teacher

– I let her be the boss, and did so without resentment

– I supported her jealously and zealously. 

– I took initiative in making her life easier while challenging myself to try new things.


Basically, I submitted to her for the sake of the greater good.  I’m not sure I could have done that for someone I did not like or get along with.  Juliet was a hard word working and dedicated teacher.  It would have been more difficult to submit to someone who was not so competent and diligent.  She engendered respect and I happily gave it to her.  In return, she respected me and my opinions


In future posts I’ll talk a bit more about the programming and behavior management issues we had.  But I thought it was important to lay down the foundation which was the teacher-para relationship.  The more severe the disability, the more crucial it is that people work together as a unit and team.  Juliet and I were, in many respects, a perfect team.  It was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot.  I miss those days, sometimes.  





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