I see you.
Up until a couple of days ago, I was you.
Unappreciated, overworked and underpaid, invisible and exhausted. I see you and what you do. I watch your struggle to help your kiddo to the bathroom, take that fourth walk around the building in no air conditioning with a mask on, and watch as you wince in pain as they grab you too hard in a bid to tell you in unspoken ways, that they are frustrated with the world.
I left this job for many reasons, but the main one was that I went back to college to do some form of writing, and it’s essentially all I’ve wanted to do with my life. Not that helping kids isn’t a noble thing; it is. But essentially this jobs biggest enemy isn’t that it’s hard, it’s that the public school system doesn’t make it easy for us to stay.
Regardless of the direction I have decided to steer my professional life, having this job and helping these kids has taught me so many lessons that I would have never been able to otherwise learn. I learned complete and utter selflessness, thunderous kindness and the human beings incredible capability to understand, and ultimately stare humility in the face. I met the most compassionate people that exist on this planet. I found a bubble of kindness and compassion in a world that especially now, lacks it in spades.
Some of you may be asking what a Paraprofessional actually is. Please let me be the one to tell you.
I bet you wake up at ungodly hours to get your kids to school, all while managing to take a shower, fight them to dress in clean clothes, and trying to scarf coffee laced with week old creamer. You yell at your kid to hurry it up, making sure they are able to get down a frozen waffle or two, while you attempt to make a wholesome, packed lunch for them after you calmly stick a frozen dinner in your stained purse for lunchtime later. You manage your hair and make-up in the car, pray you remembered deodorant, and hope to god that you get to work without dropping something down your front while you drive, all while choking down a cream-cheesed bagel that sits on your lap.
Mornings are hard. They are chaotic and sometimes impossible. It’s what we deal with as a parent. It’s barely getting to work on time and hoping your child has matching socks. It’s life.
Special needs parents do this too. Usually though, they are up an hour earlier than you. They have to dress their child from head to toe, physically feed them breakfast one bite at a time, skirt epic meltdowns or put them in a wheelchair after they change their diaper. Meanwhile, these kids are ten, or fourteen, or even twenty. This isn’t a phase. This is their life forever as a special needs parent.
Paras are an extension of that parent while they are at school. They do their best everyday to make sure they stay clean, fed and happy, and while they are doing that, they are correcting behaviors, getting them to various services (speech, vision therapies, etc.) and trying to get some valued education in, hoping they learn something new that day. They are hugging them, crying with them and consoling them when they just can’t handle their feelings. They keep hope alive, make daily sacrifices on their own bodies, energy and emotional well being. They are hero’s without capes, a teachers right hand. Without them, the special needs children in your community would never be able to attend school, see their friends and learn to navigate the world.
I left this job reluctantly. Despite the crappy pay and the sad understanding that the administrators in public school don’t acknowledge our existence, I was sad to leave. I try not to carry too many regrets. Guilt is useless in most instances. Sometimes, hard decisions have to be made. This was a hard one for me. This bought guilt and will no doubt bring a regret, but inevitably, it was time for me. I was burnt out, and like many paras before me, decided to follow my passions.
My last three days were spent at home, using accrued personal time. Today I recieved an email from a student who used to walk with me certain points of the day, so the bullies wouldn’t talk to her or bother her. I didn’t get to say goodbye, since my last day, she was absent. I had to tell her in that email that I didn’t leave HER, that I left a job, but that my heart and my mind would always be with her. I cried typing the words, knowing that she no longer has the comfort of my presence, or the feeling she needs to feel safe in some of her classes.
Who will walk with her now? Who will give her the courage to report her bullies? Who will tell her how amazing her reading is coming along, support her in her goals to teach math class to kids with special needs, and answer her 8th grade questions about life and the universe?
If not me, who?
I know someone there will step into my shoes, because I know who my people are. They refuse to let a kid go to the wayside, refuse to let them be forgotten. Sometimes paras are the only positive encouragement they will get all day. Some kids don’t go home to happy homes. This job isn’t just for the more severely disabled kids we care for. It’s the kids in-between too, whos parent sleeps through the mornings and doesn’t see them on the bus, or can’t remember to remind them to brush their hair or wear deodorant, so you make sure it’s in your desk or bag for them so they don’t get embarrassed. It’s the kids who have parents who work long hours and can’t be home to see their kids to bed, or make sure they did their homework. It’s the ones who miss meals, have no one to talk to, or sit alone in the lunchroom. It’s those kids too. A paras job extends across the lines. You are a caregiver, parent, educator, counselor and sometimes therapist. You are a multitude of arms reaching across an impossible divide. You multitask with excellent efficiency, filling the holes in every broken dam you walk past.
There is a huge discrepancy in what teachers get paid and what paraprofessionals get paid. While teachers have to have a 4 year degree with certification, paras only need a 2 year. They get paid less than half and get less days off to use in the school year. They will never get a chance to get major raises, no matter how much training they do. They are required to do many hours of training a year, only to be put with kids they don’t know, with ailments they have to learn about quickly from google. For the administration, they are just a warm body that helps meet state compliance. They are a necessity for them to claim to be an “inclusive school.”
They love the title, but the reality is far less pretty. While they want to be recognized as inclusive, they refuse to see the bigger picture, to see the people that steer that ship, to recognize the low men on that totem pole: the one cleaning, bending, sitting on the floor. The one singing the same song over and over, dancing, blowing bubbles and repeating the same lessons over and over to make sure they understand it. The one that laughs when their kids laugh only to cry when they go home. The one who feels like she has been left to the side of the road with no ride home, with no help in sight. She is holding up the fort from the very bottom, shifting her weight to not rock the top. The top that barely notices why they are still standing upright in the first place, unwavering, all while making the rules. The one who barely eats lunch, or gets to finish her coffee. The one who makes sure our frailest kids, our most vulnerable tiny humans, are safe when they are away from the warmth of their homes.
These are paraprofessionals: my people, my friends.
The heart of special education.
Mandy is a romance author living in rural Pennsylvania. She writes happiness one kilt at a time.