Actors may receive the king’s share of accolades for a theater performance, but where would they be without the director, scriptwriter, prop master, wardrobe, stagehands, and other essential crew members running the show in the wings?
Paraprofessionals function as that backstage muscle but in schools, working behind the scenes to keep everything going.
Without them, things wouldn’t be pretty. Or functional.
“A day without paraprofessionals. It’d be pretty much impossible. It would be rough,” said Anayancy Martinez, a pre-K special education teacher for Edinburg CISD. She relies on her pair of paraprofessionals to help guide her young students during lessons, hand out materials and manipulatives, help with meals, keep order in the classroom, and assist with bathroom breaks and diaper changes.
“They are multitaskers,” Martinez said. “If they were not here, I would probably be like [actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie] Kindergarten Cop, where they’re running around. That’s how I picture it.”
As COVID-19 reshaped how — and where — students learn and how educators teach the curriculum, paraprofessionals and other support staff had to evolve, too.
Raul Cardenas remembers being initially excited to hear that his spring break vacation was being extended another week in 2020. He was working as a teacher’s aide in Donna ISD at the time — he teaches now. But back then, he became more and more concerned as the school district — like others throughout the Rio Grande Valley and the rest of the state and country — continued to adjust how it would be delivering lessons to students.
“Something that started going through my mind was, well, the students I work with for the position that I had, I was helping students who needed accommodations,” Cardenas said. “That was going to be a little bit harder to do if we weren’t going to be there in person. I’m also an hourly employee — I was a little bit worried about that.”
Donna ISD administrators communicated with all staff members about documenting hours worked and how their roles would shift in response to an unprecedented situation. Then, Cardenas and his fellow paraprofessionals got to work. They gathered textbooks, workbooks, and other materials to distribute to students and their parents and took inventory of existing items at the school. They also called students and parents to make sure everyone was on the same page when it came to what they needed to be working to complete assignments while learning at home.
“It’s definitely another hat that I had to wear,” Cardenas said.
Schools leaned heavily on paraprofessionals’ versatility and willingness to help particularly during the pandemic. Martinez recalled some staff members at her campus being pulled into classrooms as substitute teachers when other substitutes were unable or unwilling to fill in for missing teachers. Other paraprofessionals there acted as assistants to the school nurse in taking temperatures and asking in-person students about any possible symptoms or exposure to COVID. Paraprofessionals also delivered students’ meals to them, enabling students to stay within their areas — and 6 feet apart from their classmates, as recommended by social distancing guidelines.
“They were given a lot more duties than usual,” Martinez said.
Matthew Garcia, an inclusion teacher’s assistant at AP Solis Middle School in Donna, thrived with the additional responsibilities he took on during the pandemic.
“We’re the jack-of-all-trades here — especially more this year,” he said. “In a moment’s notice, things can change.”
Garcia has found himself monitoring the hallways for in-person students, manning the desk for a short-staffed front office, keeping distance-learning students on task, and shuttling them to virtual small group work sessions if they get lost. His teacher has also entrusted him to continue leading the online lesson if something happens — like an internet connectivity issue or a meeting that requires the teacher to leave the computer.
“It’s definitely challenging but, all in all, it’s a totally different learning experience,” Garcia said, remarking about figuring out how to operate Google Classroom as he went along — and right alongside his teacher.
Garcia’s mother worked as a paraprofessional for 13 years, describing her life skills TA role as not much more than standing in a corner and making copies whenever the teacher needs them. These days, Garcia finds his position is more highly involved. His teacher bounces instructional ideas off of him and regularly asks for his input and feedback.
“The kids don’t see me as a TA. They count me as a teacher,” he said. “I’m not and I admit it — I’m not the teacher — but they respect me as one.” During Teacher Appreciation Week from May 3 to May 7, many of his students thanked him, told him he was awesome, and even referred to him as “our second science teacher,” he said. “If they need it, I got it. That’s what I love about it. That’s what makes the day good, that little message at the end of the period: ‘goodbye, sir, have a good day.’”
Martinez also counts her paraprofessionals as additional teachers in her classroom.
“Without them, my class doesn’t run. I need them in my class in order for me to be able to do my job,” she said. “Just like everybody thanks teachers for everything that they do, the positions that require paraprofessionals, that’s for a reason and we need them in the class. Without them, more students would definitely not be able to get everything that they get out of the class.”
Whether students’ parents and the rest of the community realize it, paraprofessionals’ work in the wings keeps everything running smoothly at schools across the Valley — even during an unprecedented academic year.
“It’s been a difficult year for everybody,” Cardenas said. “A lot of the TAs I feel do put in an enormous amount of work. But I feel like that recognition isn’t there.”