Paraeducators Are Critical to the Classroom — and They Make Poverty Wages

School districts are facing a dire shortage of paraeducators, making it impossible to provide services to which students are legally entitled. For the good of paraeducators and students alike, it’s time for fair compensation.

The US public education system depends on educators that lack the pay, job protections, and opportunities for advancement that licensed teachers count on. (Getty Images)

Kimberly Thibodeau never lets a student off the hook until they’ve given the best effort they can muster that day. With her in-depth knowledge of each child, “Ms. Thib” tailors the lesson to the needs of whoever’s struggling, firmly insisting that they can do it.

If you’re picturing a classroom teacher, you’d be wrong. Thibodeau is a paraprofessional: one of over a million educators who work side by side with America’s students, giving personalized instruction and care while earning poverty wages.

When I taught English at a high-needs public school in Springfield, Massachusetts, I shared a classroom with Ms. Thibodeau. I was amazed at how she remembered everything. She knew our students’ living situations, what their siblings were up to, who responded best to which sorts of encouragement, and who needed to be reminded to eat breakfast. Thibodeau told Jacobin why she loves her job: “We have the ability to really get to know our students and that allows the student to be more successful.”

With their child-centered view of teaching and learning, paraprofessional educators are able to anticipate and solve problems before they arise, making it possible for students — particularly special-education students — to meaningfully engage with the curriculum.

Tatyana Younger, a paraeducator in Lawrence, Kansas, and executive vice president of her local union, told Jacobin she’s been in her district since the sixth grade. “Paras do so much work to make sure that kids are seen and felt and that our schools can actually function in greater ways,” explained Younger, who makes around $11.50 an hour.

Because paraeducators get so little in terms of pay, benefits, and respect, school districts are facing dire para shortages, making it impossible for schools to provide services to which students are legally entitled. Until paraeducators’ crucial role is recognized with fair compensation and a real voice in decision-making, these shortages will undoubtedly persist.

Connecting Home and School

Those outside of K–12 education might not realize just how much instructional work is performed by a class of employees who lack the pay, job protections, and opportunities for advancement that licensed teachers count on. How did this educator underclass come to occupy such a critical role in public schooling?

Widespread hiring of teacher aides began in the late 1960s, as urban school administrators sought cheap ways to respond to baby boom–induced school overcrowding. In pursuit of a desegregated educator workforce and more community involvement in schools, grassroots activists demanded that anti-poverty funding be used to hire the mothers of local schoolchildren to fill these new roles.

Nick Juravich, a labor historian who has researched paraeducators and their movements for educational and workplace justice, told Jacobin that “organizers in local freedom struggles” argued hiring community members “would improve instruction by bringing local knowledge and culture into classrooms.” As Shaun Laden, special-education assistant and president of the Educational Support Professionals chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, put it, these early paras were hired to enhance students’ confidence and achievement by acting as a bridge between home and school: “These [were] people who you go to church with or go to a mosque with,” Laden told Jacobin. “Like, ‘Oh my paraprofessional is gonna be down the pew from me and is gonna ask how school’s going.’”

With US schools still highly segregated by race and socioeconomic status, Juravich told Jacobin that paras’ “role as community conduits [is now largely] an unspoken but widely acknowledged open secret. Statistically, something like 75 percent of paras are likely to live in the district where they work.” That number is much lower among the disproportionately white teaching workforce.

Tequila Laramee, a paraeducator and union organizer in Minneapolis — where educational support professionals are on strike for a living wage — explained to Jacobin:

Growing up, I can’t remember any teachers that looked like me. I wanted to be that teacher that not only looked like the students but understood where they come from, that understood their culture, their language, that experienced the same things they do to show them that they can have any career they wish. And to show them to love their brown skin.

As a paraprofessional in Worcester, Massachusetts, Yahaira Rodriguez makes learning accessible for children who have recently arrived from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and are adjusting to a new school and a new language all at once. Having moved to Worcester from Puerto Rico in 2009, Rodriguez told Jacobin she can understand what these students are dealing with. A leader in her union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (also my union), Rodriguez trains her fellow MTA members on how to support English learners.

Rodriguez explained that paras help schools and families stay connected because “the reality is that everybody knows everybody.” She continued: “We understand where the kids are coming from. A lot of them come from projects and a lot of paraeducators also live in low-income [housing] because we don’t get paid a living wage.”

Making Learning Possible

Paraeducators go by many different titles depending on their region, specific job, and union membership. While the prefix para suggests they’re not quite educators, the fact is paras are on the front lines of public education, making school possible in ways no one else can. Rodriguez told Jacobin:

We are doing the work that others don’t want to do. We are the ones working with our kids on the autism spectrum. We are the ones taking them to the bathroom. We are the ones showing them how to wash themselves.

Nick Juravich, who is writing a book about paraeducators, told Jacobin that many paras are “basically de facto special educators and bilingual educators, because they often speak the local languages” and they’re always assigned the children who require the most attention. As legislation and case law have cemented the obligation of public schools to make curricula accessible to all students, paras have been tasked with ensuring that kids with exceptional cognitive, social-emotional, and medical needs are able to meaningfully engage with classroom learning. This can include everything from small-group literacy and math instruction to informal counseling and physically restraining students in emergency situations.

The work paras do is invaluable to teachers, whose long student rosters and unwieldy lists of responsibilities make it impossible to duly attend to each child. Nathan Jones, a special-education researcher at Boston University, told Jacobin that special-education teachers may be more likely to remain on the job and use evidence-based classroom practices when they work alongside paraprofessionals. As Jones explained:

Having a second, reliable adult who can shoulder some of the burden of the intensive work required of special educators can serve as an essential buffer against special-educator attrition. For a group of teachers who face chronic shortages and high rates of attrition, anything we can do to improve special educators’ working conditions becomes critical.

Administrators often take advantage of paraeducators’ flexible job descriptions, piling on more and more duties. In addition to giving higher-needs kids specialized instruction and hour-by-hour guidance, paras assume miscellaneous roles throughout school buildings, handle redirection and discipline for entire classes, and, frequently, act as substitutes when teachers are missing. Both Kim Thibodeau and Yahaira Rodriguez are currently acting as long-term substitutes due to staffing shortages in their districts. Rodriguez told Jacobin she served as a math teacher all year last year, and she’ll be teaching again for the rest of this year. Unlike some paras, both Rodriguez and Thibodeau earn additional pay for subbing — but not as much as a substitute teacher would make if hired as such.

Discussing the undignified treatment paras receive in exchange for “doing a thousand jobs,” Rodriguez told Jacobin: “They think that paraeducators are just the extra moms to help and make copies, but we’re not. We’re educators.”

Too Little to Live On

Although it’s no longer an explicit part of any job descriptions, a lot of paras are moms, drawn to the profession partly because the hours are compatible with raising school-age children. And as with other jobs that resemble the unpaid work of parenting (such as feeding students and driving them to school), paraeducators’ labor has been systematically devalued. As Nick Juravich put it, “For bureaucrats and administrators, constructing paraprofessional work as women’s work allowed them to justify both low pay and ‘flexible’ hours and hiring.”

According to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, teaching assistants earned a weekly median wage of $507 during the school years between 2014 and 2019, as calculated in 2020 dollars. The same report shows that while just 4.5 percent of all workers held more than one job, 10.6 percent of teaching assistants were forced to do so.

“There are essentially three unwritten qualifications for a job as a para,” explains Holly Currier, an instructional assistant in Andover, Massachusetts. You can either “depend on a partner or parents who make more money than you, work another job, or go on government assistance.”

Even with outside income, it’s difficult to make ends meet. Becky Cook is a teaching assistant in Sebastian, Florida, who earns just over $26,000 a year after two decades of service at her job. Cook told Jacobin that some support staff in her district are staying in motels or campgrounds because they cannot afford stable housing: “The rent for anything has gone up substantially, and believe me, their pay does not cover that.” Yahaira Rodriguez said she knew of a Worcester para who was recently homeless.

Although school districts do offer paraeducators health insurance, the costs can be prohibitively high. When Becky Cook’s three children were on her plan, she says she was working full-time and taking home “maybe $200 and something every two weeks” because health care consumed the bulk of her paycheck.

Given this combination of demanding work, miserably low pay, and exorbitant health costs, it’s not surprising that districts are struggling to fill paraeducator vacancies. Tatyana Younger says you can get a fast-food job in Lawrence making nearly $4 more per hour than starting paras earn in her district: “It’s hard to retain staff that way.”

Fighting Back

To make matters worse, paras describe feeling that their expertise is ignored by school and district leaderships. Although they often have more firsthand knowledge of student needs than anyone else in the building, they are typically not invited to attend special education-planning meetings or meaningfully included in professional development.

In many cases, paras are not even given the tools — such as district laptops — that they need to do their challenging work. Yahaira Rodriguez told Jacobin that while students in her district were issued laptops to take home during remote learning, paras had to stay in the building to borrow school laptops in order to assist with virtual instruction. As Tequila Laramee put it, “We do a lot of the hard work in our schools, and we’re treated like we’re not even important.”

Fed up with this unacceptable state of affairs, paraeducators all over the United States — including the ten who spoke with Jacobin for this article, who are active in their unions — are standing together and fighting back on behalf of themselves and their students. Laramee, Laden, and their colleagues walked off the job on March 8 alongside Minneapolis teachers, demanding smaller class sizes, mental health resources for students, and conditions (like higher wages) that make it possible for kids to receive instruction from members of their own communities.

Tatyana Younger and her fellow para, Hannah Allison-Natale, told Jacobin how they helped build a union for hourly school staff in Lawrence, starting with paraeducators. Their first victory was a contract that gives them job protections and a grievance process. Allison-Natale, who is president of the brand new CWA local, told Jacobin they were inspired by school staff in Chicago and Los Angeles who took bold collective action to make education systems honor our shared humanity.

Meanwhile, in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the superintendent of schools just got a nice raise, Kim Thibodeau told Jacobin her union has a tagline referring to the district’s threadbare offer to paras: “Two percent don’t make a dent.” It’s just not enough, she says. And at the end of the day, students pay the price.