Educational assistants, unsung heroes

Being a ParaEducator, or educational assistant, may be a first step towards a career with the Hawai‘i Department of Education.

“ParaEducators play a vital role in the classroom,” said Jeannie Odo, ParaEducator Trainer for Kaua‘i Complex Area.

Because they are vital, the lack of substitute EAs can be disruptive to a school’s schedule.

“We have a set schedule, but we have to be flexible,” said Jane Kaneshiro, a Special Education EA at Koloa Elementary School. “Sometimes we have to cover classes … cover for each other.”

Under the supervision of classroom and resource teachers, EAs may instruct individual students, small groups or work one-on-one with students. Often, they prepare learning materials. The work performed will vary depending upon teachers’ expectations and job assignments.

“I help regular education teachers modify student work,” Kaneshiro said. When she is in the classroom, Kaneshiro can see a lot more of what is going on than the teacher who is busy instructing the class. Because Kaneshiro works one-on-one with students, a bond forms and students tell her things they would never tell anyone else.

The bond she forms and the work she does with individuals give her insight to what a student’s strengths and weaknesses are. She bases her modifications of student work on this knowledge.

“I’ll try different ways to find the avenue that will make it click for the student. This is one of the most important things we do,” Kaneshiro said.

Kaneshiro has been an EA since 1995. She has worked with pre-school students through high school. She has worked in self-contained classes, special education classes and in mainstream classes.

“I go where the need is,” Kaneshiro said.

At Koloa Elementary, she covers Morning Club.

Before school begins, students report to the cafeteria and engage in different activities. She can spot a child who has had a difficult morning, maybe because of a problem at home. She tries to defuse the problem, because she knows that the problem could make for a bad day where the child is unable to focus on school-work. She also alerts the teacher.

When Kaneshiro is in a mainstreamed class, which is a regular education class, she helps everyone, not only the special education students in the class.

The requirements for an EA have changed over the years, especially with the No Child Left Behind legislation that requires all educators who work with students be “highly qualified.”

Kaneshiro said she has always taken classes to keep from getting “stale,” so fulfilling the additional NCLB requirements did not discourage her. She works with students with such varied disabilities that whatever class or workshop she takes helps her gain further insight into her students.

Leila Vasconcellos, a general education assistant at Kaua‘i High School, has been active in the Educational Assistant Association. She said a career ladder is making its way through the state Legislature.

The career ladder would be a step in addressing concerns voiced by Kaneshiro and others.

“We’re really excited that the bill is moving forward,” Vasconcellos said.

The DOE now requires each student to have a personal transitional plan. The student portfolios will be a part of the transitional plan for KHS students.

When the NCLB requirements came into play, Vasconcellos took the classes to learn updated information on special education.

Odo, as the ParaEducator Trainer, does the module trainings and organizes the ParaEducator Institute Day, which involves many mini workshops.

“ParaEducators have to be caring, responsible, willing to challenge themselves in following pathways to improve their credentials,” Odo wrote in an e-mail.

“If I can help one child feel good and confident and still willing to try instead of giving up, that makes all the difference to me,” Kaneshiro said.

“I like what I do,” Kaneshiro said, and that’s enough to keep her around for a while.

Odo wrote that when she was in the classroom, she encouraged several ParaEducators to become certified teachers. They are now teaching in Kaua‘i schools.

Diane Nitta, personnel regional officer, said that anyone who would like to get a taste of what ParaEducators do, should make an appointment with principals in his/her geographic area to discuss the possibility of becoming a substitute EA.

“It is extremely rewarding,” Nitta said.

• Cynthia Matsuoka is a freelance writer for The Garden Island and former principal of Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. She can be reached by e-mail at aharju@kauaipubco.com

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