The long-simmering teacher shortage has become a crisis. Even before the pandemic, austerity budgets had been driving educators—and all school staff—into other careers. Long hours, high stress, lack of respect, and woefully inadequate resources: all of these challenges only grew once COVID-19 hit. Now, teachers are expected to do even more—accelerate learning while helping whole families heal—without the supports they and their students need. These conditions are driving many educators away. But there’s one group who knows about all of these challenges and still wants to become teachers: our paraprofessionals. They are already in our classrooms educating and caring for our students.
To make it easier for paraprofessionals in Philadelphia to complete their coursework and student teaching, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) negotiated a new paraprofessional-to-teacher program with multiple pathways so that each paraprofessional would get the right level of support. Here, we learn from two instigators of that program: Gemayel Keyes, an experienced paraprofessional who highlighted the need for such a program and is now in it as a teacher resident, and LeShawna Coleman, a master teacher turned PFT staff representative who has been a key architect of the program.
EDITORS: You are both passionate about ensuring paraprofessionals are valued and have opportunities to advance in their careers. Why is Philadelphia’s new para-to-teacher program so important to you?
LeShawna Coleman: My mother was a paraprofessional; she just retired in June 2022. She would have loved to become a teacher but could not afford to do so. She became a single parent when my father died—I was six years old and my sister was four. My mother had stayed home before he died, then suddenly she had to make sure she had an income and health insurance to take care of us. She always wanted to become a teacher, but I saw firsthand from her experience how difficult it can be for paraprofessionals to transition to teaching. And I also saw that many of our paraprofessionals have so much potential to do just that.
Gemayel Keyes: I started my career with the school district as a bus attendant and one-to-one classroom assistant. I was 22 and when I applied, it was just a job to me—a job with benefits. But I found my calling once I got here. I worked with a bunch of veteran teachers who saw something in me; the more they pointed it out, the more I saw it within myself. It’s mainly the way I connected with the students, but also how I picked up on the veteran teachers’ methods and made them my own.
I make it my duty to build some type of rapport with every kid who comes through the door in our special education department. Often, these are the children who don’t necessarily get the attention that they need to thrive. I realized that I have a knack for breaking through to some of these kids and pushing them to do more—sometimes even more than their doctors thought they were capable of doing.
Now it’s time to make a move; I don’t want to be a paraprofessional forever. The best use of my talents—building those bonds, pushing students to excel, and teaching them that their disability can be an ability—is as a teacher.
EDITORS: Gemayel, your advocacy was crucial for creating this program. Take us back several years and explain how it came about.
Gemayel: I went to college through a program the school district offered to parents; the district opened it to paraprofessionals for a very limited window. I was pushed into it by my special education liaison; she kept nudging me, showing up at my desk, and putting information in my mailbox. I got my associate degree at Harcum College and then my bachelor’s in early childhood education at Eastern University.
But my dilemma was that to become a teacher, I had to student teach. As a paraprofessional, I was among the lowest paid union members, and when you student teach, you can’t work—or more accurately, you work for free, which I could not afford. I explained this roadblock to Jerry Jordan, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, at a union meeting to discuss proposals for our then-upcoming contract negotiations. Jerry asked LeShawna to take my information. And later that evening, I got a big surprise: Jerry called me. He wanted to make sure paraprofessionals like me could become teachers.
That conversation was about three and a half years ago. Jerry wanted to move quickly, but the pandemic started and the union extended the existing contract. Every PFT meeting I attended and every time I saw Jerry, I brought up the dilemma facing paraprofessionals. Jerry always assured me that he had something up his sleeve, and he stuck to his word the whole way. That’s how we got to this program. To me, it’s a step in the right direction for the school district of Philadelphia—we have so much expertise among our paraprofessionals, and we should be promoting from within. I thank the PFT for making sure that that happened.
LeShawna: I remember that meeting well. Gemayel expressed his desire as a Black male to be an elementary teacher and his frustration about not being able to student teach—and Jerry, who is also a Black male, was very concerned. We desperately need qualified teachers, especially Black men. The teaching population does not reflect the student population in Philadelphia or in most large urban school districts.
Gemayel: Unfortunately, we have very few Black male teachers, especially in the elementary grades, so I know I am needed.
LeShawna: Absolutely. So Gemayel was surprised when Jerry called, but I wasn’t. Jerry is very good about following up on our members’ concerns. After speaking with Gemayel, Jerry sent me a message that night saying we had to find a way to help.
As we got closer to our contract negotiations, which were delayed because of COVID-19, we were clear that creating a para-to-teacher pathway was a huge priority for us. Fortunately, the district agreed, so we moved quickly into how to make it work. We committed to making it successful so there would be a long-term impact on our members and our students.
With the entire country struggling with teacher recruitment, what better place to look than within? Who would make the best new teachers for our students? Our paraprofessionals. They’re experienced, and they know and love our students. Most students see the paraprofessionals as teachers already; they don’t differentiate between the assistant and the teacher. With this program, we’ll increase the number of teachers of color, and we know that these are people who truly want to be in the classroom long term.
Gemayel: These kids need to see people who look like them, and they need to see that we care. They also need to see by our example what’s possible for them—someone who shows them, “I came from where you came from and look at where I am now. I’m here for you.” The same way that the PFT is helping us to rise through the ranks, I want to be the person who helps that kid who may be having a difficult time pull through. It means a lot to me because I’ve been that kid. I wasn’t always the best student that I could be. Now I want to help my students avoid some of the mistakes I made.
Being able to connect with children on different levels is critical. I befriend my students, but I am still an authority figure to them. Fundamentally, I treat my students how I want to be treated. I give them the same respect that I want for myself. I give them grace, I let them be wrong, and I give them opportunities to apologize because I also make mistakes and need to apologize. I want them to feel like they matter and that they’re important to me. That goes a long way, especially with the most challenging kids. When they see that you’re humble enough to give them grace and respect, you get grace and respect back.
EDITORS: It’s clear that helping paraprofessionals like Gemayel become teachers is a wise investment. LeShawna, please share more details about this new pipeline you’ve helped create.
LeShawna: Urban schools have long struggled with recruiting teachers, largely because of tough working conditions like run-down facilities and overcrowded classrooms, and recruiting has gotten much harder with the pandemic. Unlike new teachers, our paraprofessionals know about the working conditions and still want to be here, which is crucial to retention. As the union, we decided that we needed to pursue para-to-teacher pathways.
We started with a survey to ask our paraprofessionals about the roadblocks to becoming teachers. Financial barriers predominated. Like Gemayel, many were not able to afford a whole semester off to student teach. Others couldn’t afford tuition, sometimes because they had gone to college previously and had student debt—and they didn’t make enough as paraprofessionals to pay the loans.
The union decided that both raising paraprofessionals’ salaries and starting this para-to-teacher program would be priorities. We understood that with the current state of education budgets, we would not be able to get them the amount of money they deserve, but we could make improvements and find a path forward for their careers.
During our most recent negotiations, the district knew our priorities. Negotiations can sometimes be adversarial, but in this case, the district understood the value of retaining our paraprofessionals and of helping them become teachers. We agreed early on that we wanted to include as many paraprofessionals as possible.
Together, the union and district sent the paraprofessionals another survey to learn how to make this para-to-teacher program work for them. It was clear that we had to cover all tuition and provide guidance on transitioning back to school (which was especially critical for our experienced paraprofessionals who had been out of school for many years). We also negotiated to establish a committee (which I am on) with eight members—four from the district and four from the union—that meets twice a month to ensure this program works well. We started meeting in late fall of 2021 and set a March 2022 deadline for beginning enrollment. It was hard, but I had promised Gemayel we would make that deadline, and we did it.
From our joint union-district survey, we learned that our paraprofessionals are at different points in their educational careers. Some, like Gemayel, already had bachelor’s degrees with the minimum 3.0 GPA that the state requires to enter a teacher certification graduate program. Creating a pathway for these paraprofessionals would be relatively easy. But others graduated with a GPA below 3.0, took some college courses without completing a degree, or had not started college. We didn’t want to leave anyone behind, so we formed several different ways to enter our para-to-teacher pipeline.
Paraprofessionals with a bachelor’s degree and a 3.0 GPA can attend one of our partner universities to complete a certification program—and possibly a master’s degree—while doing a paid, yearlong teacher residency under the guidance of a mentor teacher. Those with a bachelor’s but a GPA below 3.0 can apply to La Salle University to complete courses needed to raise their GPAs and then earn their certification.
For paraprofessionals who have not started college or have fewer than 45 credits, we have an extremely supportive option. College Unbound is offering experience credit and allowing paraprofessionals who are parents to bring their children to class when they need to. While this pathway is less structured, it is also far more nurturing and individualized. Paraprofessionals can earn a bachelor’s through College Unbound and start teaching with emergency credentials, but then they will have to do another program for full certification. We wanted to give this option because College Unbound wraps their arms around their students, and that’s what some of our paraprofessionals need. For those with at least 45 college credits, Cheyney University also offers a highly supportive program—and as a historically Black college, Cheyney is a wonderful partner because many of our paraprofessionals are Black women.
This year, Gemayel is a teacher resident; he’s working under a master teacher and completing his master’s degree at Temple University. His salary and tuition are covered by the district, and he is receiving support for books and other related costs. And he’s thriving.
Gemayel: I tell as many of my colleagues as I can about the program because I believe they’ll thrive as well. I feel like most educators should be paraprofessionals before they become teachers. I’ve been working in the school district of Philadelphia in the special education department for 16 years. I’ve worked with at least 12 special education teachers over the course of my career. At this point, I’m the most experienced person in the special education department among the classroom assistants and teachers. I’m the go-to person for pretty much the whole department, even for my administrator.
You learn a lot in teacher preparation, but experience has been the best teacher for me. Because of my experience, I know how to put what I learned in the books into practice—and I know when to differ from what I learned in my courses. Working in an urban public school is challenging; it isn’t for everyone. Some teachers only last a week, and others last 40 years and don’t want to retire. A lot of the teachers I worked with earlier in my career stuck it out for decades, and I thank them because I learned from them. Now I’m passing their teachings on, even as I continue to learn.
Going through this residency program gives me a chance to be the teacher while being guided by a mentor, and it’s more in-depth than typical student teaching. It gives me the opportunity to tinker with things, see what works, and make it my own.
EDITORS: All of this sounds great, but how will you know if this program is successful?
LeShawna: Success will be at least 90 percent of our paraprofessionals completing the program and being prepared to teach. They must commit to teach in Philadelphia for two years after completing the program, so we know that they’ll be here with us for a bit. But we are fully confident that many will stay long term because we have a lot of candidates like Gemayel who have already been here for many years. He and his peers will have a lasting impact on our students and our community.
Right now, we’re putting a lot of emergency certified people into classrooms who don’t understand what teaching is. They don’t understand children or the dynamics of a school. About 45 percent of new teachers resign within their first five years in Philadelphia. We’re looking to reduce that tremendously.
Gemayel: I feel that the PFT actually getting this done is itself a success. Jerry stuck to his word. That just goes to show the makeup of our union and how dedicated they are to the membership. As adults, going back to school can be a challenge. Having the support of your union and your employer—knowing they have faith in you—goes a long way.
LeShawna: I appreciate you saying that. Our members entrust us to create better lives for them because that’s what unions do. We negotiate wages and benefits, obviously, but we also want to negotiate programs that allow them to excel and move forward in their careers, especially when those programs ensure our students benefit from well-prepared, diverse staff.
Because we—the union and the district—wanted to open this program to as many of our 2,500 paraprofessionals as possible, we set basic criteria: no disciplinary record in the past 18 months and no more than 18 occurrences of absences in the past three years. There were a few people with extenuating circumstances who didn’t meet these criteria; the union pressured the district to take a second look at them, and ultimately they were approved.
Then, we steered eligible paraprofessionals toward the path that suited their educational preparation, and they applied to one of our partner universities. Each university has its own selection criteria, but our university partners understand that most of our paraprofessionals are mid-career. They don’t have to take the SAT, and we removed the application fees. But they do have to demonstrate their commitment through things like writing a short essay about why they want to become teachers. I’m thrilled that we now have 150 paraprofessionals in our first cohort.
EDITORS: Do you have a plan for recruiting paraprofessionals since so many are now becoming teachers?
LeShawna: In our most recent contract, we increased paraprofessionals’ salaries, so we’re hoping that will help with recruiting. The district is also working with our high schools to recruit students who don’t intend to go to college right away. Like Gemayel mentioned, he didn’t think when he started that he would be doing this 16 years later, but here he is. And he truly is one of our best and brightest. If we can do the same thing for our graduating high school seniors, that will have a huge impact on our district. These are our students, so they reflect the diversity of our student population—and they are likely to stay in education in Philadelphia.
Offering all of these pathways will certainly mean that we have to replace paraprofessionals who transition, but the goal is to help people not be stagnant in their careers. And this program will make paraprofessional recruiting stronger because they’ll know that there’s a pathway to becoming a teacher.
We may also be able to draw experienced paraprofessionals from other districts because we pay our paraprofessionals better and offer better benefits than the surrounding districts do. The PFT negotiates benefits for teachers and paraprofessionals together; they have the same exact benefits. This program is one additional thing to propel them to a higher salary and keep them in our district.
We’re really excited about this. It’s costing over $4 million, which the district is covering with federal stimulus funds, but if you want to know what someone values, look where they spend their money. We pushed the district to spend its money on getting more teachers of color in classrooms and retaining people who truly want to be in front of our students. And this program is definitely going to do that.
[photos by Terrell Halsey]