Feature stories

Taking the lead

Bronx para soars in new position

Paraprofessional and Lead Teacher Assistant Melissa Calderon (bottom left) helpsMiller PhotographyParaprofessional and Lead Teacher Assistant Melissa Calderon (bottom left) helps a 4th grader divide decimals while Regina Shin (standing) works with a group of 5th-graders. On a hot afternoon in June, lead teacher assistant Melissa Calderon walks along a green and white checkered hall in Archer Elementary School in the Bronx, her students trailing beside her. They look like a flock and its shepherd as she leads them into Class 403.

In the self-contained bridge class of 4th- and 5th-graders, Calderon and teacher Regina Shin help students compare decimals. Calderon’s teaching style is energetic and colorful in a room where kids are wild about learning. They bounce up and down in their seats before the readiness drill, but are easily tamed by Calderon’s voice.

Calderon (center) gets a big thank you from her colleagues at the party.Maria BastoneCalderon (center) gets a big thank you from her colleagues at the party. Calderon is among about 50 paraprofessionals citywide now serving as lead teacher assistants, a career ladder position for paraprofessionals negotiated by the Department of Education and the UFT. The new role, created in 2016, gives paraprofessionals the opportunity to play a broader instructional role in the classroom while providing professional support to their fellow paraprofessionals.

Before becoming a lead teacher assistant, Calderon served as a para at Archer for 2½ years, working with students in one-to-one and small-group settings. She says working with an emotionally disturbed child helped her discover inventive ways to engage students and showed her how much she was capable of. Her new role gives her a chance to reach her potential.

“Many times paraprofessionals are briefed on instruction. They don’t get to provide input,” Calderon says. “With this role, you are sitting with a teacher and you’re helping them to plan. You’re giving them your ideas about what’s best for the students.”

Before the lesson begins, Calderon and Shin meet. They discuss learning objectives and split the class into groups. As Calderon navigates through problems on the Smart Board behind her, she challenges students to think critically. She asks questions of 4th-graders in the front row while Shin helps 5th-graders at the back of the classroom.

“We’ve compared fractions before. Did we compare them to see if they were cooler or nicer than each other? Or was it something else?” asks Calderon.

“No,” the students shout, chuckling.

It’s a familiar routine for Calderon and Shin that they execute with ease. They’re like a tag team, switching off when one needs to support an individual student.

When Shin was on maternity leave, Calderon stepped in to serve as a substitute instructor. With her new title, she was able to do so without supervision.

“It’s like having two of me,” Shin says of Calderon. She hopes in the future to have time designated for common planning.

The staff surprised Calderon with a potluck lunch and appreciation party.Maria BastoneThe staff surprised Calderon with a potluck lunch and appreciation party, complete with celebratory cake, at the last professional development day at Archer Elementary School in June. When she isn’t teaching, Calderon checks in on her fellow paras to answer questions, offer support and sometimes just to say hello. She is a familiar face to students and takes pride in being able to comfort them, calming down one 5th-grader when emotions run high and offering steady support to another 5th-grade boy she once assisted as a one-to-one para.

“She really jumped into this role from the beginning and since then she’s been doing a fantastic job,” says kindergarten teacher and Chapter Leader Rachel Godlewicz.

Calderon also advocates for the paraprofessionals by fielding their concerns and bringing them to the attention of the principal or addressing them in training sessions. She offers weekly professional development to paras, including Daisy Sahadeo, a 21-year veteran who welcomes Calderon’s support.

“It’s a step up for paraprofessionals. Seeing her take on this position has motivated a lot of us to push forward,” says Sahadeo.

At one of Calderon’s training sessions, paras read sections from “The Explosive Child,” a book by Ross Greene, and talk about how to better understand the varied needs of easily frustrated and chronically inflexible children.

“Professional development is my biggest responsibility,” says Calderon, admitting it is daunting to train educators who have more experience than she does.

But seasoned paras like Jeanette Alvarez are on her side. Alvarez believes there is a need for the behavioral intervention training Calderon provides because the para’s job has become so hands-on.

Calderon and other lead teaching assistants earn $5,000 a year above their regular salaries. But Calderon says her true reward is having the chance to help other paraprofessionals grow and have a greater impact on students and school communities.

At her final professional development day of the year, Calderon planned a special bingo game and appreciation exercise for the paras. But the Archer staff had a surprise of its own.

In a tightly packed classroom lined with purple and pink balloons, staffers huddled together for a potluck thank-you party that moved Calderon to tears.

“I’ve become a part of the team in a different way,” Calderon says. “People see me as a leader and it’s great to have that type of support.”

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