Paraprofessional: A Year in Special Education

Introduction: I've been teaching for the last 10 years, but I've never worked for an actual school district. I've mostly worked in non-traditional settings like museums and after school programs. I thought it would be interesting to see what life is like in a public school.

So I started researching what it takes to get a job with the San Francisco School District. At first I thought I would work as a substitute teacher, but I quickly discovered there are quite afew hoops to jump through to do that job. So the next option I found was to become a paraprofessional. A paraprofessional is basically an assistant special education teacher. It requires almost no certification so it was an easy job to get.

All I really had to do was attend a hiring event at District Headquarters in downtown San Francisco. At the event, dozens of potenial paraprofessionals sat in a small auditorium while hiring managers conducted incredibly brief interviews. They called me up and asked me something like 10 questions: Had I ever worked with kids before? Was I a felon? And was I available to work immediately? With those questions out of the way I was escorted into a conference room with a dozen other recruits to watch a rote orientation video and sign some documents.

A week later I was in the system and ready to start working. I soon found out that the District is desperate for paraprofessional help. As soon as I was able to apply I started getting dozens of requests from schools all over San Francisco. I went in to a few interviews and before very long I was hired at a middle school in the Sunset District.

From here, to protect the kids I work with, I'm going to be using made up names for the school, staff, and students. I'll call the school Sutro Middle School.

So, I arrived for my first day at Sutro with no idea what to expect. I wandered into the administration office looking for a Ms. Hernandez, a vice principal whom I had spoken to once on the phone the week before. Ms. Hernandez was away from here office, so a second vice principal, Ms. Tulley met me and explained that she was in charge of the special education department at Sutro Middle School and she would be showing me around. Ms. Tulley was also new to the school so we got a lost a few times on my tour of the school. As we walked the busy halls full of students, we talked about my experiences in museum education and what I could expect as a paraprofessional. Ms. Tulley seemed excited that I had a lot of experience in education. I got the sense that a lot of the other new paraprofessionals didn't have the same level of experience.

We went back to Ms. Tulley's office where she gave me some documents to sign and explained that I would be working as a "one on one" paraprofessional. That meant I would be working exclusively with one student throughout the year. I was a little nervous, mostly because I was afraid my job would be a lot of bathroom help, which I didn't want to do at all.

After all the papers were signed, Ms. Tulley walked me down to the room where I would be working, to introduce me to my student, Gregory. Gregory, Ms. Tulley explained, had Cerebral Palsy, and would mostly need help navigating the halls. He gets tired easily and his balance isn't great, so I just had to make sure he didn't fall. And because he doesn't have a lot of control of his muscles, he also had trouble communicating. At first I couldn't understand him at all.

When I met Gregory, his mom, Jill, was sitting with him. She was very kind and obviously wanted to make sure her son was well taken care of. After a short introduction, Ms. Tulley, Jill, Gregory, and I went to explore the different routes to Gregory's classes. Jill was worried that there might be too many stairs and Gregory would get too tired. She had provided the school with a large stroller for Gregory to use when he got tired. Because Ms. Tulley was so new to the school, we found many of the routes she tried to contain several sets of stairs so we had to turn back multiple times to find a more accessible route. During one of these dead ends we had to use the gymnasium elevator to get back down to the first floor. Somewhere along the way, we'd picked up another student, a kid named Davis. So we all loaded into the very small elevator: that's Ms. Tulley, Gregory, Gregory's mom Jill, Davis, and me. It was just too many people. The elevator lurched to a stop. We all did our best not to panic, though danger was clearly on everyone's mind. For an entire hour, we all sat in that tiny elevator, the adults doing our best to calm the kids, though Jill also seemed to need regular reassurance that we would soon be rescued. She really wanted to call the fire department as soon as possible and kept making moves toward her phone against the wishes of Ms. Tulley who was on her phone with the principal, Mr. Boot. Eventually, we did have to call the fire department though and after an hour, they pried the doors open and we all crawled out. Gregory and his mother went home immediately after that and I was assigned to look after Davis for the rest of the day since he didn't have a full time paraprofessional yet.