Paraeducators, the backbone of classrooms, push for better training and wages in Connecticut
Each morning when Jennifer Corbeil steps into Groton Middle School, she’s greeted by students who are excited to see her. As a paraeducator who supports teachers in the classroom, it’s the perfect way to start the school day.
“We’re the first people that the students see every day,” Corbeil said. “We can tell whether they’re going to have a good day or a bad day. And if they’re going to have a bad day, we’ll see what we can do to turn it around.”
Paraeducators help both general and special education teachers in the classroom. They often work one-on-one with students who have disabilities, support smaller groups, help with behavior and physical management, and assessing students’ learning experiences. But they are expressing concerns of feeling overworked and underpaid, an ongoing situation that was only made worse by the pandemic.
Connecticut doesn’t require paraeducators to have a specific certificate or permit, although many have higher education degrees. Some basic requirements include earning a secondary school diploma or completing two years of study at a higher education institution. But they do have to pass a national assessment test to be a full-time paraeducator.
The process of becoming a paraeducator is inconsistent, Corbeil said, and it’s one of the reasons that it’s so difficult to recruit and retain new paraeducators.
“Every job description is different for different paraeducators, the skills required for special education classrooms, versus a mainstream classroom ... dual-language programs, behavioral management or helping students with basic needs," she said. "We all do totally different things so it would be nice to have actual standards."
Lori Luciani, the assistant principal at the school, said her district has a behavioral consultant who works with paraeducators and staff on a regular basis. But she said training and education for the role varies across the state.
“Paraprofessionals are really required to have such a broad range of skills. And we provide a lot of training for that on our teaching and learning days and our professional development days,” Luciani said. “But it is a really specialized skill, it’s so important to support the student, and the case manager and the teacher. So it’s hard to say there’s one thing that they do because it’s so specialized to the individual needs of the students.”
A bill that would have started the process of creating a standardized certification program stalled at the legislature in the spring. Lawmakers said it was mainly because it was expensive. A version of the bill that did pass included professional development requirements, better data gathering and allowing paraeducators to be more involved in students’ assessments.
State Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-New Britain), who is chair of the state’s Education Committee, said many school districts include paraeducators in their professional development days for teachers, but many do not.
“They should be getting the same kind of professional development as teachers,” he said. “It doesn’t help that every district does something different so we hope the bill will help bring some consistency there.”
Another program that would help with consistency is a standardized certification process for paraeducators, a discussion that Sanchez said lawmakers will revisit during the next legislative session.
“We will also focus on wages and health care,” he said. “It’s crazy that a lot of them don’t have health insurance and haven’t had a wage increase in years.”
A 2014 state report showed that there were about 14,450 paraeducators in Connecticut, and over half of them work in special education. The average income is less than $30,000 a year. In Connecticut, paraeducators’ salary averages about 42% of the salary paid to an elementary school teacher, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For 2021, the number rose to 52%.
Corbeil said paraeducators play a crucial role in the classroom, being the teacher’s second set of eyes and ears. But historically, the job isn’t sustainable with the high demands. With low wages and limited benefits, she said she considered higher-paying jobs.
“I myself make $15.78 an hour, which just started in January,” she said. “Our district is trying to get ahead of the national $15 minimum wage, and it is a good start. The job we do now requires more than just a minimum wage pay, and it should reflect accordingly.
“That’s a big issue, getting us that pay and respect and the benefits, making that so much more appealing to being able to make this into a career and not just a revolving job,” said Corbeil, referencing colleagues who leave the industry for better-paid jobs outside of education.
At East Lyme Middle School, Christine Gunther is a paraeducator who works with special education students. She often works with multiple students at a time, and some students need extra support like feeding and toileting. She said everyone in the profession has different levels of knowledge.
“I have a background in teaching, but that’s not necessarily the case for most people,” she said. “We’re in the classroom trying to maneuver through all kinds of situations, but no one’s ever walked us through the process.”
“We would benefit from education,” Gunther said. “I don’t know that we have, for example, let’s say somebody wanted to take a course to help them do things better. I don’t know that we get that sort of ability, or is it offered to us.”
Gunther said it’s hard to retain paras because the work is inconsistent and the demands are too high.
“I don’t think a lot of people deliberately go into this because they’re gonna make money. And I didn’t go into teaching to make money,” she said. “But I did go into it hopefully to make a living and be able to continue that.”
Paraeducators don’t want to leave the field, but low wages and working in high-stress environments are driving them out of the classroom. Corbeil said one thing that would help is better involvement with the legislature.
“I want lawmakers to start recognizing us as being crucial to the education of our students,” she said. “Light that fire! Come to us and get our input when it comes to legislation. I love being a paraeducator. I love working with my students. But help us stay in this field.”