AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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Instilling a love of learning

For Janie Johnson-Cao, the card says it all: “Thank you for what you’ve done to help Ian love learning. He has enjoyed being with you and will always remember the time he spent with you.”

Johnson-Cao, a paraprofessional at the Center for Early Education in Denver, received this card three years ago from the parents of a former student. Like the other preschool children Johnson-Cao works with in a self-contained classroom, Ian has autism. Johnson-Cao recalls that when Ian first enrolled in the center, he was shy and had difficulty interacting with the other children. But during his time at the center, Ian’s social skills and his vocabulary improved so much that when he left, he was able to attend first-grade in a mainstream classroom. Ian’s parents credited Johnson-Cao with contributing to their son’s development and so gave her a heartfelt card. She keeps it, along with the many other thank-you notes from parents, tucked away at home.

In her 16 years as a paraprofessional, Johnson-Cao has enjoyed watching children grow. “It’s very exciting to see them learn new things,” she says. A former stay-at-home mom, she began her education career by volunteering in her daughter’s kindergarten classroom. After the principal noticed that Johnson-Cao volunteered every day without fail, she offered her a job.

For 10 years Johnson-Cao was a kindergarten reading assistant at John J. Cory Elementary School. For the past six years, she has worked as a special education paraprofessional at the Center for Early Education. There, Johnson-Cao, along with two other paraprofessionals and the classroom teacher, works with eight students ranging in age from 3 to 6; all have autism. The goal of the class is to help students learn social and academic skills and ultimately attend mainstream classes. “The integration piece is so important,” Johnson-Cao says. Her work has not gone unnoticed. In the 2009-10 school year, the School ParaEducator Association of Colorado named her Paraprofessional of the Year.

For nine years, Johnson-Cao has served as vice president for membership of her union, the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Services Employees. A cancer survivor, she regularly volunteers with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society by raising funds and by talking to newly diagnosed patients who are seeking support. Diagnosed with leukemia 10 1/2 years ago, Johnson-Cao undergoes chemotherapy every day. Yet her illness hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her dream of becoming a classroom teacher. Four years ago, Johnson-Cao, along with about 20 other paraprofessionals, won a scholarship to enroll in a teacher education program at Metropolitan State College of Denver. She takes classes part time and hopes to earn her K-6 teaching license.

Lori Tolmich, a paraprofessional at Bryant-Webster Dual Language, believes Johnson-Cao has chosen the right career path. Tolmich, who also won a scholarship in the Metropolitan program, says that when Johnson-Cao taught a practice lesson using the children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, she engaged their whole class in the story. “She had us pretending we were going through grass, swishing through it, crossing a river,” Tolmich recalls. “If she teaches like she did that day, then she’s going to be a wonderful teacher.”