Teachers’ aides as classroom collaborators

Doctoral student explores impact of teacher aides

Teachers’ aides as classroom collaborators

Doctoral student explores impact of teacher aides

While they provide a crucial role in the classroom, there’s limited research on how to best utilize teacher aides.

Tammy Riemenschneider, a doctoral candidate educational leadership in the College of Education is researching the role of teacher aides, also called paraeducators. She, Marla McGhee, associate professor, and Melody Johnson, scholar in residence, recently presented some preliminary researc findings at the Critical Questions in Education Conference in San Antonio.

As former teacher, former principal and former public school superintendent, they brought a unique perspective as they discussed a participatory action research project Riemenschneider is conducting as part of her dissertation research. To be selected to present at a national conference is an honor, McGhee noted.

“Refereed conference opportunities are pretty tough because there are lots of presenters vying for those positions, so we were excited about being accepted and being given the opportunity to air these issues and discuss them in a national forum,” she said.

In Texas, paraeducators outnumber special education teachers 2-to-1 and make about a third of the salary, according to information from the Texas Tribune.

“The importance and the number of paraeducators is impressive,” McGhee said. “We spend a lot of money hiring paraeducators. Because these are generally lower wage positions, they are less expensive to a school district. But these individuals are often working with children who have the greatest instructional needs.”

A licensed dyslexia therapist and certified academic language therapist, Riemenschneider has training and background in developing and supporting student learning as it relates to students with language-based learning disabilities. Throughout the fall semester, she has been working with an area school district to determine whether job-embedded professional development strategies can bridge some of the training gaps experienced by paraeducators who work with struggling students.

“We are looking at what type of roles paraeducators play in the district, what are their responsibilities and how can we best utilize the services they provide to ensure that student learning is maximized,” Riemenschneider said. “The idea is to offer job-embedded professional development guidelines on site to help aides develop and fill their capacity in terms of working with students. So instead of going to a seminar and sitting all day listening to a lecture, instead of using that traditional form of development, I’m working on a more individualized, one-on-one approach to help develop the skills needed instructionally.”

Paraeducators are hardworking, well-intentioned and caring people, she said.

“They serve an extremely important function when working with our high-needs students, so the question becomes how can we help ensure they are able to be as effective as possible and then also ensuring that their concerns are heard as well,” Riemenschneider said.

Some of the questions she is exploring: Do paraeducators have planning time? Are teachers working collaboratively with them to gain their suggestions and ideas for a child’s education? Are paraeducators comfortable asking for guidance when they need it?

In practice, paraeducators’ varying qualifications range from those with college degrees and years in the classroom to those with little training or work experience. And the way they are deployed varies from district to district.

“It’s a very diverse employee group within a school system,” Riemenschneider said. “So this approach of doing the individualized, job-embedded program is a means of identifying those variances and providing a level of support based on that individual’s area of responsibility.”

McGhee, who is Riemenschneider’s dissertation chair, spent more than 20 years in public schools and her mother was a teacher aide in Midland public schools. “I come to this issue from both professional and personal interests,” she said. “I know that paraeducators can make a remarkable difference in the classroom lives of children and teachers. I have an intense interest in this research and was eager to see Tammy’s work get broader exposure.”

Riemenschneider hopes to finish up her research by the end of the fall semester and then share her findings through journal articles and additional presentations.

“I just cannot tell you how proud I am of this student,” McGhee said. “She’s involved with something that is powerful and something that could be truly useful information for lots of public school districts not only across the Metroplex, but also across the United States.”

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