One of the most important agents of change in special education is paraprofessionals. These dedicated professionals are often the mediators between classroom teachers and our students with disabilities. They help create access for the child to the curriculum. Unfortunately, paraprofessionals are almost never given planning time with teachers, and are not usually allowed access to professional development. In mathematics, this can mean that the paraprofessional and the mathematics teacher have different ideas about what and how the student should be engaged in mathematics.
Judy Storeygard (author of several excellent texts on mathematics teaching for students with learning differences and/or special education services (Count Me In and My Kids Can) has been working with colleagues on addressing the issue of access for paraprofessionals. Funded by the National Science Foundation, they have provided a pilot program for paraprofessionals in the Boston Public Schools, designed to increase access for paraprofessionals to high-quality professional development in mathematics. I would love to see more projects like this!
Check out this video: http://stemforall2018.videohall.com/presentations/1095
1) Paras need opportunities, over time, to immerse themselves in mathematics activities that help them to develop their mathematical thinking. Often, they have not had positive experiences learning math themselves, and so as part of this process, they are developing their math confidence. Many have become quite excited about doing math!
2) Our paras (and other paras we have spoken with) can identify the ways in which math instruction is quite different than what they experienced as students–but since many haven’t been involved in a teacher education program, they aren’t always sure about what it means to instruct with an inquiry-oriented curricula or resources. Understanding the goals of such curricula and experiencing inquiry approaches within their PD have been important to them. Also, they have been eager to learn and try out instructional strategies in their classrooms (e.g., how to listen for student thinking, asking questions that provide students with new challenges within an activity, asking students to re-tell the story problem), and then return to PD to debrief with each other and us.
3) Follow-up activities have also been helpful. Through our project, the paras have had opportunities to plan with their teachers and reflect on their students’ math learning and struggles.
4) And last, but not least, the paraeducators have created a math learning community where they provide each other with support, encouragement, and new ideas. They are incredible resources for each other!
Over one million para educators currently assist in classrooms, and another 100,000 are likely to be added in the next ten years. Para educators are often required to teach content, such as mathematics, but there are few efforts to provide them with the knowledge or supervision they need to be effective when working with a range of students, including those with disabilities and for whom English is a second language. While professional development will enable paras to make a greater difference in the classroom it may also increase their access to continuing education and workplace opportunities. Our project is designed to develop, pilot, study, and refine PD, that focuses on developing the confidence, mathematics knowledge, and teaching strategies of para educators, grades K-3 in the Boston Public Schools, as well as providing support for their collaborating teachers.