Meet Two Newtown School Paraprofessionals
What do paraprofessionals do and what are their days like in Newtown Public Schools?
In honor of the recent National Paraprofessional Appreciation Day April 3, two of Newtown’s paraprofessionals shared insights about their jobs.
According to Newtown Public Schools Paraprofessional Union President Marlene Bucci, the local district has 170 paraprofessional positions of which 156 are currently filled.
“Of those positions, 65 are classified as instructional para’s,” Bucci wrote in a recent e-mail. “These include behavior interventionist (elementary); kindergarten, literacy and math support; technology, Project Adventure (at Newtown Middle School); and chemical hygienist (at NHS). The remaining para’s provide support in special education. These include pre-kindergarten through high school.”
Bucci said special education paraprofessionals provide support across all special education areas inclusive of the district programs, but they are not all serving in those programs. She also reflected that the roles and responsibilities of a paraprofessional or a paraeducator have changed over time.
“There has been a paradigm shift in how we support them,” Bucci said about students. “It is not a ‘one-size-fits-all approach,’ but rather each student has a unique way of learning and has different needs. It is our role to meet those students where they are at the moment and give them the strategies needed to be successful.”
Lauren Nash has been a paraprofessional for five years, and talked about her job at Middle Gate Elementary School. As a kindergarten paraprofessional, Nash said she helps support the classroom teacher.
“This could include things such as taking smaller groups for a math worksheet, or having a small reading group where we focus on our sight words,” Nash wrote in an e-mail.
“I love to play learning games with the kids, so I sometimes pretend we’re on a game show and they have to “buzz in” to say the answer. They love it,” she stated. “If I’m not helping out in small groups, I’ll be working with a child individually with their writing. Tapping out words, forming sentences, working on letter formation, drawings. There’s still a lot of stick people in kindergarten, so we work on teaching the kiddos to add more details and colors.”
She asks children questions like, “Where is your hair?” “Your mom’s hair is blue and pink?” “Where are you clothes?” Asking questions in funny ways makes the kindergarten students laugh.
“Kindergarten is an age where we are really preparing them for the next chapter. There are so many emotions, feelings, uncertainties, nervousness when many of these kids come to us, and sometimes my job is just to offer a hug and let them cry. It’s never a dull moment in the kindergarten world,” Nash wrote.
Nash says she truly loves her job and the classroom she works in.
“I’m sure the kids in our class feel the same way! [Middle Gate teacher] Alexa Calo is the reason I moved from being a special education paraprofessional to a kindergarten paraprofessional. I just had to work with her,” she said. “The kids are another huge part of what I love.
“Being a mom with young kids myself, I find myself really taking these kiddos under my wing. I always try and treat the kids the way I’d want my kids to be treated. I love these kids. They make me laugh daily. Some of the things they say,” Nash said. “Alexa and I always joke about how we need to write a book of kindergarten sayings! I love the people I work with as well. I have met some incredible people being a para at Middle Gate.”
Ups And Downs
The work has its challenges, too.
“Kindergarten can be especially hard with some of these challenges because the kids are so young,” Nash said. “Many haven’t even done preschool, so when they come to us, it’s a brand new experience. There’s lots of big emotions. Lots of trial and error. What works for one kiddo, doesn’t always work for another. And what works one day for a child, might not work the next day with the same child.
“That can be frustrating for all of us,” she observed. “Luckily, we have some wonderful resources at Middle Gate, and that’s one thing I have come to learn really quickly, you’re never alone. There’s always someone there to come step in and help, bounce ideas off of, suggest new ways of learning, etc. We’re all in this together.”
When asked what she wishes people knew most about her job, she said in all honesty that the position is underpaid.
“You don’t do this job for the pay check. You do this job because you love it. And I love this job,” she said. “This job isn’t easy. It’s demanding, it can be emotionally draining. Sometimes I’m dealing with big emotions in the classroom, and I also have big emotions at home with my own kids. It’s a juggling act most days, but I wouldn’t change it. It’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.
“I love seeing kiddos we had years prior walking with confidence down the hallway, telling me about their writing or showing me what chapter book they’re reading.” Nash added, “To see their excitement about how far they’ve come since kindergarten makes me so happy.”
Paraprofessionals, Nash said, are the “hidden gems within the schools.”
“It takes a beautiful, kind, caring soul to do this job,” said Nash. “I often think that if there were no paras in the schools, that schools couldn’t operate. Sure, you may see us hanging bulletin boards from time to time, but we’re so much more than that. We are a special group, and I’m proud to be a para.”
Sandy Hook Elementary School paraprofessional Kristy Davenport devoted the past 14 years working for the Newtown Board of Education.
Davenport said her daily duties include greeting students, monitoring the hall at parent drop-off, supporting students academically, providing support during specials classes, monitoring the cafeteria during lunch waves, assisting small groups with differentiated instruction, collecting data for reports, providing sensory breaks, providing breaks when students have completed assignments and have earned a reward, assisting teachers in the classroom, supervising parents picking students up at the end of the day, and completing any other tasks that administration may require, like covering a classroom teacher or filling in for recess duty.
And that is just part of it.
“In addition to the daily roles and responsibilities of a paraeducator, we also attend annual trainings, both mandatory and optional, to improve our understanding of the specific needs of students,” Davenport explained in a recent e-mail.
“During any given day you will see paraeducators opening a Gogurt or helping put a straw in a juice pouch, putting a Band-Aid on a small paper cut, tying many shoelaces, playing basketball during recess, wiping a drippy nose, zipping jackets, and on occasion consoling a child who is upset and just wants their parent,” she added. “We do our job proudly, in the background, to make all school days run smoothly. We do this because we truly care about every student that passes through the doors of our schools.”
Challenges And Rewards
There are several things she likes most about her job, including seeing students’ eyes light up in “aha moments” and making personal connections with students. Davenport said she finds building a rapport with students helps increase their excitement for school. She also enjoys greeting students with positive energy in the morning.
“I try to notice things about each student that passes through the doorway. I will comment on a fancy haircut, new pair of shoes, or anything that will send them off on a happy note to give them a boost at the very start of their school day,” Davenport said.
Davenport also reflected on the challenges of the job.
“Being understaffed, at times, creates quite the juggling act if you are assigned to multiple students on your caseload, as well as some other students who just need help because they’re simply stuck on something,” Davenport said. “It can become overwhelming and paraeducators may feel that they can’t provide enough support in the allotted time. Another challenge is trying to find that ‘just right’ strategy to open up learning for students who learn in different ways. We use these strategies to identify what will work for students and lead them on their path to learning.”
Davenport said she lives in the community and sees many of her Sandy Hook School students around town. She tries to say hello when she does.
She has been the Paraeducator Union Representative at SHS for ten years, and Davenport said she has been active on the district’s Climate and Culture Committee for seven years, which is a voluntary position that includes administration and paraeducators from across the district.
“I have attended many volunteer events at school including Math and Science night, Reading Campouts, and Harvest Fair, to name a few. It’s about having fun while enriching the lives of our youth and that’s what I love about my job,” Davenport said.
Like Nash, Davenport finds joy in her job.
“My job is a very big part of my life,” Davenport said. “If you love what you do it makes for a very rewarding day each and every day. Seeing the smiles, sometimes toothless, is undoubtedly a highlight for me too, because when you smile you make the world a much brighter place.”
Education Editor Eliza Hallabeck can be reached at email@example.com.