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New Teacher Diaries

Success depends on community

How my mentor and experience as a para made me a better teacher
New York Teacher

Paraprofessionals are a tight-knit community, and I missed that community when I first made the transition to teaching. As a new middle school special ed teacher in September 2020, I struggled to connect with students and colleagues alike, most of whom were remote. I spent countless nights learning the curriculum and the learning standards. So much of my time was taken up with lesson planning and trying to instruct students over Zoom that I could barely forge any bonds with the kids, much less with colleagues.

I was always nervous and anxious. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I was working so hard at learning the new digital platforms and planning lessons, but there still wasn’t the connection and joy I had been anticipating.

Early in my teaching career, I was assigned a mentor — a veteran special education teacher. He offered guidance on practical things like lesson planning and instruction, but most important, he cared about my career transition. The support my mentor offered over those first couple of years made all the difference.

Gradually, I began to feel more confident. I remembered that as a paraprofessional, the thing I had valued most in that role was the sense of support. I decided that as a teacher, I had to be responsible for making my classroom community an extremely supportive environment both for my students, my paras and myself.

I pulled from my paraprofessional toolbox: I used my knowledge of how students with disabilities learn to plan my lessons and assess knowledge. I made it a priority to make sure my students knew I was always there for them to talk to, so I often had lunch with them. The students and I talked about the transition to middle school and the transition to high school. These conversations let my students know I fully supported them as human beings. Gaining my students’ trust and confidence is my greatest achievement as a teacher.

Being a former para gave me another big advantage: I know how to best deploy my paras. Some teachers don’t know how to effectively use their paras, and the students are worse off because of it. The paraprofessionals who cross my threshold know how I need them to help me with my small groups. I fill them in on what they need to know for each student. My favorite thing to do is to give my paras a shoutout in my lessons because I want the students to know that the paras are just as important in the classroom as I am. Recently, I used Play-Doh as a support for the writing process. Before class, I gave the paras some instruction on how they could best help the students. They enjoyed the activity just as much as the kids! The students told me afterward that they were really glad to see the paras doing the activity with them because it felt like everyone was together. My heart nearly exploded.

The fact that success depends on your community is something that I only truly understood after my first year of teaching. When I was a para, I was committed to supporting my students and my teachers. When I first became a teacher, I forgot that I needed to ask for support as well as offer it. But because I had strong mentors, and because I knew firsthand what paraprofessionals can do to support learning, I was able to create a community in which everyone feels safe and valued.

Professionally Positive is a pseudonym for a special education ELA teacher in a middle school in the Bronx in her fourth year of teaching.