Future Reflections                                                                                          Spring, 2002

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The Role of the Paraeducator in the Education of Blind Children

by Denise Mackenstadt, 2001 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children

Denisw Mackenstadt
Denise Mackenstadt

Editor’s Note: The Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award bestows both honor and responsibilities upon the deserving recipient. In addition to the $500 check, beautiful plaque, and all-expenses-paid trip to the NFB Convention, the award winner is asked to make a major presentation before the Annual Meeting of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children Annual Meeting. This year, NOPBC members had the pleasure of hearing an outstanding presentation from one of our own long-time members, and the first paraeducator to ever receive this award – Denise Mackenstadt of Washington State. Denise met her husband, Gary, through the NFB (she is sighted, he is blind), and they have been active members for the past 31 years. Here is what Denise had to say about The Role of the Paraeducator in the Education of Blind Children:

I wish to thank theDistinguished Educator of Blind Children Award committee and the  National Organization of Parents of Blind Children for the opportunity to address this meeting. I am very proud to be here in this capacity. By giving this award to me, a paraeducator, you have acknowledged the importance the paraeducator plays in the educational life of blind children. It is also a great personal honor, and it is of particular significance to me as a gift from our Federation family and friends.

I have always wanted to teach. When I was a little girl we often played school. I was always the teacher. In my 9th grade year I met a blind student in my social studies class. We became friends. When I began my tenth grade year the resource teacher for the blind was recruiting student aides for his program. It was a good excuse for me to get out of study hall. Little did I know that it would also stimulate a desire to work with blind people. The blind friends I made in high school introduced me to the local chapter of the NFB.

Circumstances did not allow me to complete a formal teaching program in the education of blind children. Until our daughter was born I worked, as a volunteer or as an employee, with blind children and adults in several agencies for the blind. Early on, Gary and I decided that I should stay home and care for our children. I spent the following 15 years as an at-home mom. During that time I was active in the community as well as with the NFB. I became heavily involved in issues concerning blind children and parents of blind children. I functioned as a facilitator for parent organizations and as an advocate on behalf of families with blind children. As an advocate my contact with the educational system was mostly on the negative side. I was usually brought in when communication had already broken down. I became aware of the shocking condition of some of the programs for the blind in our state. I testified in front of the legislature on the status of Braille instruction for blind children. On the other hand, as I became more active in the schools my own children attended, I gained a new respect for the challenge public school educators meet on a daily basis. The elementary school that my children attended was adjacent to the largest self-contained program for disabled children in our community. I became acquainted with many hard-working paraeducators. I was able to see on a first hand basis the role the paraeducator plays in the school community.

Then, six years ago, I went back to work as a paraeducator for blind children. For the first time in many years my local school district was opening a program for blind children. Our district had had low vision children in the past but they usually did not require direct instruction. Blind students who had secondary disabilities had their needs addressed through a self-contained special education program. For them, the teaching of blindness skills was not the most pressing issue. However, in 1987 a totally blind student named Dan Ryles enrolled in 8th grade at our local junior high school. Up to this point, he had been educated in a comprehensive program in Alaska. He had received Braille instruction and knew how to travel with the use of a long cane. His mother was a long time educator and advocate for blind children. Our local school district needed only to provide materials. Prior to this time most Braille readers were transported to a neighboring school district or attended the school for the blind. I believe that Dan’s experience opened the door for other blind students to enter our local community schools. Also, there was a move in our state toward local educational control and the inclusion of special education children in their local communities.

So, when a newly blinded second grade student in our district needed some intensive intervention six years ago, the school decided to provide the needed services. Our district was fortunate at that time to have on staff a skilled special education instructor who happened to have training as a teacher for the blind. The only need was to hire an instructional assistant to work with this student. I was fortunate to be hired as that instructional assistant. I felt that the position of instructional assistant was a good fit. In fact, it became a rewarding and challenging new career for me. For many years I had been outside the system as an advocate. Now, I was part of the system.

I quickly became aware of the huge daily impact paraprofessionals have on blind children in school. For four hours each day I worked one-on-one with a blind child. The itinerant teacher did not have this opportunity. I became an integral part of the classroom and had to develop a trusting relationship with a teacher who was not used to having another adult in the classroom on a daily basis. Over the years our program has grown to include many children and several different schools. Although my responsibilities have been primarily tied to the same student (who is now an eighth grader), I have had the opportunity to work with a variety of students from elementary to junior high.

What I would like to do today is share with you how I think paraprofessionals impact the education of blind children, what works and what does not work, and lastly, what I would like to see for the future.

From the time that blind children first received a formal education in this country, paraeducators have been used as teacher assistants in schools for the blind, Braille transcribers, and coaches in recreational programs for blind children. These positions were not always paid. Many times volunteers were used.

With the passage of Public Law 94-142 in 1973 (now called IDEA—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) local public schools became responsible for the education of disabled children. The law also established a preference for disabled children to be educated, whenever possible, in the regular classroom in the home school. In popular terms this was called mainstreaming (today it is called inclusion). But in legal terms it is called the “least restrictive environment.”

One result was that schools began to employ support personnel to assist in the classroom with special education students. These support personnel have many names: school assistants, teacher’s assistants, classroom aides, and instructional aides, paraprofessional, and, most recently, paraeducator. Whatever the title, the assistant’s duties are prescribed by the supervising teacher, usually a special education teacher. Her/his responsibilities are to assist the classroom and special teacher in any way needed to facilitate the integration of the special needs student in the classroom. However, the training and skills needed by these individuals are often not clearly defined, and requirements for the job are minimal. Also, these
positions are not well paid. Despite these drawbacks, many of these employees are dedicated to their jobs and are essential for the integration of disabled students into the regular education system.

With more blind children being placed in the regular classrooms, regular education and special education staff asked for more support personnel. The first group of specialized paraprofessionals to work with blind children was the Braille transcriber. Because of the need for blind students to have in-class materials in Braille, it was essential that the schools employ a Braille transcriptionist dedicated to producing materials quickly. These transcriptionists were initially drawn from the ranks of volunteer transcribers who had been certified by the Library of Congress.

In subsequent years the role of the paraprofessional in the education of blind children has become even more diverse and critical. The teacher of the blind has become a supervisor of a number of support staff working with his/her students. She/he must pull these individuals from a generic pool of applicants. My background is very typical of many individuals, primarily women, who return to work after their children have become older. These applicants are usually from the local school community. Basic skills of communication, the ability to follow instructions from a supervising teacher and the ability to work with special students are many times the only requirements for the job. The supervising teacher is usually expected to train the paraeducator in any specialized skills needed for the job. With the large caseloads itinerant teachers of the blind are expected to carry, this training becomes problematic. Time is always the enemy in a school community. There is just too much to do in too little time. Oftentimes on-the-job training becomes the course taken. Many school districts do not have a full understanding of the complexity of the skills that a blind student must learn. Learning Braille often becomes a task the employee must do in her free time, even though this is one of the most vital specialized skills required of a paraeducator who works with blind children. Work-release time for training in new skills is seldom offered. A few fortunate paraeducators live in states that provide trai

The use of paraeducators as instructors is controversial among the teaching professions. How paraeducators are employed vary greatly from one area to another. In some communities paraeducators, who are commonly referred to as “classified,” as opposed to “certified,” staff are respected for the essential role they play in the education of children. They are used effectively and are considered an integral part of the school staff. In some geographical areas the use of paraeducators is a new phenomena. The integration of support staff into the daily routine of these public school communities may not be smooth.

A sign of the times is that the national magazine of the National Education Association now includes a whole section devoted to the paraprofessional in the public school system. Many professional education groups are calling for core competencies for classroom assistants. These competencies will be required as a condition of future employment. However, additional skills, which may be disability specific, are not usually compensated for. As an example in Washington State the Braille Bill legislation requires all paraeducators working with blind children to pass a Braille competency examination. However, paraeductors who work hard to pass this exam do not get an increase in pay scale or grade that  reflects this added expertise.

Because of the growing caseloads of itinerant teachers of the blind, assistants are increasingly on their own for the majority of the workday or even week. We are expected to reinforce the lessons the itinerant teacher teaches. We even provide daily instruction when needed. In addition, we are often the ones who adapt and produce Braille, tactile, and large print materials for the students. As a result we are fulfilling two very demanding jobs in one. We are the school transcriptionists, and we are aides who must be available to the classroom teacher to provide whatever assistance is deemed necessary in the classroom. Many of the skills that a blind person needs to be successful are taught by paraprofessionals. We are teaching keyboarding, daily living skills, adaptive techniques for reading and math, and how to get around the environment with a cane. When the regular classroom teacher has a question relevant to blindness many times we are the people they look to for answers.

We need to be cautious about the growing influence that paraeducators are having on the education of blind students. No matter how much skill and knowledge that the paraeducator may have, she is not the teacher responsible for the education programming for that student. Both ethically and legally, the certified teacher is the person responsible for the student to meet the goals stated on an IEP. At times, administrators and other school district officials need to be reminded of this fact. The paraeducator may have some valuable technical knowledge, but the certified teacher of the blind has been trained in the educational process. She/he has attended a college training program that provides a greater understanding of the learning process and what is most useful or appropriate for a blind student’s learning environment. Paraeducators are a supplement to the educational programming of the blind student. The instructional strategies need to be prescribed by the certified teacher. Both the teacher and the paraeducator have the responsibility to communicate with each other on a frequent basis. They need to clearly define their roles in the educational process for a blind student. The paraeducator and the teacher are a team. Without a team approach the blind student is at a severe disadvantage in school. Parents need to be proactive in demanding that a certified teacher be available to work on a regular basis with their child. Only when parents demand the services and the personnel to deliver these services will blind children have a chance to be successful.

Experts are predicting a teacher shortage of staggering proportions in the next five years. We in the blindness area are already seeing this take place. Many times there are too few itinerant teachers of the blind to properly serve the students in our schools. Weekly mobility instruction for students is becoming a luxury. Daily Braille instruction for primary age blind students is in many cases rare. Anyone who learns the basic rudiments of the Braille alphabet is employed to produce materials into Braille.

But wait, I do not want to portray a totally bleak picture of the current situation. In the midst of this crisis most of the paraprofessionals in the education of blind children are dedicated and hardworking people. They take vacation and free time to learn the skills that they need to teach these children. They will do whatever it takes to give children the education they deserve. These paraeducators are your friends and neighbors. They are heavily invested in making the public schools work well. Many times their own children are the products of the local school system. Most of the paraeducators that I know are in this business because they love children. There are some lessons which cannot be “taught.” These are instinctual feelings about children that come naturally for some people.

What we need to do is to offer these important professionals the special training that will make them better paraeducators.

What can we do as a community to support and improve the job which paraeducators are doing for our children? First, respect from all parties is essential. A component of this respect is the recognition that we provide a valuable service to the education of blind children. We should be compensated financially for additional training we seek out or are required to receive. Other staff members of the schools must accept us into the school community as professionals. Parents need to have a better understanding of the role we play in the education of their children. Opportunities for advancement into more responsible positions need to be made available. And more training opportunities need to be provided.

I want to speak specifically to the training needs of paraeducators working with blind children. As I said earlier, some steps are being taken to improve the basic skills of all paraeducators who work with special education students. One of those general skills is the ability to communicate effectively with other professional school staff members. This has a special application to paraeducators of blind children. Paraeducators need to be able to speak on behalf of the blind students to whom they are assigned. Typically the blind student placed into a classroom is the first blind student that this classroom teacher has dealt with in her/his career. Teaching a student in a non-visual manner can be very disorienting for a teacher who has never done it before. Our job is to make the classroom teacher comfortable enough to do her/his job. Many classrooms are already overcrowded and a typical classroom teacher will be concerned with what further burden this blind student will be for them. We (the paraeducators) are there to do wherever is called for to relieve this anxiety. As the teacher’s anxiety is lessened, then we are better able to do other tasks, such as adapting materials and
reinforcing or teaching compensatory skills.

Paraeducators who work with blind and visually impaired students need to have additional skills. The knowledge of reading and writing Braille is essential. Braille production technology is almost essential in order to keep up with the volume of material needed. Basic knowledge of adaptive technology is of help in guiding the student into being more effective in the classroom. An understanding of how to adapt visual information to a medium understandable by the blind student is required. A basic understanding of travel with a long white cane is needed. Knowledge of the daily living compensatory skills of blindness is also required. A basic curriculum of additional study is needed to encompass the different situations in which a paraeducator may find herself on a daily basis is sorely needed.

Most important, all the training in the world goes to naught if the right philosophy of blindness is not expressed. The philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind is that if a blind person is given proper training and equal opportunities to achieve high expectations, blindness can be relegated to a nuisance. On a daily basis, blind children are exposed to pity and expectations of helplessness. To counter this, families and educators have to reinforce the opposite.

As a paraeducator my job is to have high expectations. Our blind students will only strive when we expect them to excel. I set a bar or a standard and then will raise that bar. I must instill this same attitude in all of the staff that comes into contact with my students. I must help peers understand the same philosophy. Most importantly I must help my blind student to learn an age appropriate way to articulate his or her needs in a positive and independent manner. While my student is young, he/she will need my help to articulate his/her desire to be competent and self-sufficient. As he/she grows into an adolescent, I must teach my student how to advocate for him- herself in an appropriate way. Without the desire to be a full and contributing member of society, all the skills in the world will not fulfill his/her dreams. The belief in oneself in the ultimate lesson I must leave my students.

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