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UFT paraprofessionals work in the classroom as part of an educational team providing educational and supportive services to children. The teacher is the team leader and has sole responsibility for introducing new material. The paraprofessional is the reinforcer for the teacher's lessons.
If you're a general education paraprofessional, you work in the school's classrooms, libraries, reading or math labs, resource rooms or with small groups of children, reinforcing the day's lesson.
If you're a special education paraprofessional, in addition you may be involved with feeding students, brushing teeth, toileting, changing diapers, giving wheelchair assistance or performing other tasks specifically listed on a student's individual education program (IEP).
Paraprofessionals were first hired to work in schools around the United States in the 1960s through President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society anti-poverty program. Those early paraprofessionals, all poor and mostly female, met discrimination and disrespect and were made to do the jobs no one wanted.
That all changed in 1969 when Velma Hill worked with UFT President Albert Shanker to organize New York City’s paraprofessionals and negotiate and win their first UFT contract in 1970. The contract tripled paraprofessionals’ salaries and provided benefits and career opportunities that turned a minimum-wage, dead-end job into the sought-after career it is today.
Hill served as the first chairperson of the chapter, followed by Maria Portalatin who served as chapter leader for more than 25 years. Portalatin, known as a courageous fighter for labor and Latino rights, led chapter members on a march to City Hall during a labor dispute in the 1970s and threatened then-Mayor Abe Beame with a sit-in until the issues were settled.
“The Mayor gave us exactly what we wanted,” recalls Shelvy Young-Abrams, who was with those at City Hall and who succeeded Portalatin as chapter leader in 2006.
Shanker and the UFT also from the beginning responded to the professional aspirations of paraprofessionals by establishing a career ladder from which thousands of paraprofessionals have been able to earn a college degree and in many cases go on to serve as teachers, guidance counselors, school secretaries or in other positions in city schools.
Today, the UFT continues to fight for the rights of paraprofessionals, to support their endeavors with students and in schools and to work to improve their career opportunities. The chapter in 2015 has grown to nearly 25,000 members.