Paraprofessionals: From Great Helpers to Intellectual Leaders


Many Different Hands of All Shades

Committed to fostering systemic change through professional development in New York City public schools, TCICP brings educators together to share inclusive practices and allow schools to collaborate and learn from each other. This occurs in Inquiry-to-Action Teams and workshops as teachers from different schools work together to delve into inclusive practices and curriculum design. TCICP also hosts Demonstration Days where teachers and school leaders visit schools to witness inclusive practices in action and hear the history of the structural changes that supported the changes in practice.

On March 1st, 2017, I attended the Demonstration Day at P.S. 503, joining educators from across the city as we learned about the work of paraprofessionals and the influence the paraprofessionals have had on school culture and systems. For the past four years, Anne Palmer – a TCICP staff developer – has worked with paraprofessionals, teachers, and leadership at P.S. 503 to build collaborative relationships and paraprofessional capacity to support student learning in inclusive environments. What started as a needs assessment by school administrators and Anne has evolved into a paraprofessional team that organizes and teaches weekly professional development sessions and presents at regional conferences.

The Day

Our Demonstration Day started with a short presentation by Anne and the school leadership to share the history of the work. Principal Nina Demos and assistant principal Brook Precil detailed the progression of this work over the past four years, highlighting the significance of continual communication and collaboration to support students’ overall needs. We were then led on guided tours of classrooms to observe paraprofessionals in action. Following the tours, a team of paraprofessionals led a panel discussion, sharing their experiences and answering (the many) questions we had about how collaboration between teachers and paraprofessionals happens on a day to day basis. We then returned to meet with school leadership to ask further questions and share ideas for taking what we had seen back to other schools. The energy in the room was vibrant, as participants in the room kept repeating, “I can’t wait to take this back to our team. I have so many ideas for what we can do in our own school.” Although we were all brimming with ideas, two key takeaways stood out for me.

Repositioning Paraprofessionals

P.S. 503 thrives in many areas, but the seamless teaching we observed hadn’t always been there. As Ms. Demos explained in the opening session of the Demonstration Day, the work of Anne Palmer and the paraprofessionals at PS 503 first began in the 2013-2014 school year with a needs assessment to determine how to address crisis management for students. After Anne led a session on executive functioning, the paraprofessionals were so motivated by learning about the root causes of student behavior, they decided to create their own presentation for the entire staff. School leadership cited that as a pivotal moment for the school – for the first time, paraprofessionals were leading workshops, and teachers were learning from them, driving intellectual growth for the faculty and staff.

The repositioning of paraprofessionals created a shift towards a stronger sense of leadership within the school community. Julie Pena, one of the paraprofessionals on the panel, and a key figure in leading professional development explained, “When my role changed in the classroom, I saw my role in the whole school very differently. I now speak up and give my input, using my notes and observations and new knowledge. And teachers actually listen to what I say and implement it.” Another observation by members of the panel was the impact of seeing other paraprofessionals taking on leadership. They saw their own position in the classroom shift and felt confident to take on more responsibility, attend new training, and speak up with their ideas. As one paraprofessional shared, “I am grateful that other paras started attending workshops and leading PD sessions when I was still nervous. This encouraged me…I realized I could do that too. But it’s been a process.”

Community and Collaboration

Another observation made by all the visitors was that there existed a strong sense of community at P.S. 503. Collaboration among team members was evident on our tours, in classrooms and hallways and even as paraprofessionals finished each other’s sentences during the panel discussion. While this appeared natural to visitors, members of the school were quick to point out that there are many structures in place to facilitate communication and collaboration. For example, early on, paraprofessionals indicated they were nervous to share their ideas with the classroom teachers with whom they worked. Using specific protocols, Anne led discussions as paraprofessionals opened up and shared their observations and insights with classroom teachers. The teachers were then able to share their own goals for collaboration. This structure allowed for deep discussions that led to stronger collaboration between teachers and paraprofessionals, strengthening the relationships and ultimately leading to more focused teaching for each student. Weekly professional development meetings for paraprofessionals have been another simple, powerful structure that has fostered collaboration. The time is used for paraprofessionals to collaborate with each other and with Anne, sharing successes, frustrations, and ideas. These sharings are then used to create professional development sessions that are led by the paras themselves. Recent topics have included teaching executive functioning workshops creating literacy supports, and how to hold conversations with the teachers with whom they work. As Ms. Demos shared, “We needed to have structures in place so that this knowledge now lived at our school instead of only being localized in Anne or a few paras.” Several paras on the panel indicated the importance of this time that is spent together, away from teachers and administrators because it allowed for paras to be honest in their frustrations and vulnerable in asking other paras for support. “It gives us a better understanding of what we want for ourselves and for our students,” added Julie.

The Work Continues

The work at P.S. 503 continues. The paraprofessional team, now an integral part of designing professional development for the school, is full of ideas from collaborative note-taking, to developing family communication and relationships to book clubs. It is clear they take pride in their new role as intellectual leaders and are ready to share and support each other and their students. This year, there continues to be more learning for all – there are almost a dozen new paraprofessionals who were not there for some of the original workshops on executive functioning and literacy supports. The focus is also on alternative language paras – a relatively new area for the school. But the school leadership and paraprofessionals are ready for this challenge. As one para pointed out, “We know it will be a journey. We know we will make mistakes. But that’s okay, because we are all here to support each other as we grow…and really, that is how we can best support our students.”