A problem, solved

Paraprofessionals train peers in Common Core math

OUR WORK LIVES often come down to a balance between challenges and aspirations. Challenges when we’re not given the dignity and respect we deserve, and aspirations when we reach for higher goals, like the best education for our students. That’s the case for two members who found that their jobs as paraprofessionals didn’t always tap their talent and experience. Through their union, they both found a way.

Karen Riggleman is a special education para working with students in inclusion classrooms in Kenner, La., and is a member of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers. When her students don’t understand the material, she re-teaches it in a different way. She enjoys mathematics the most by far, but also helps children master English, social studies and science.

Although the paras in Jefferson Parish would love to have district-sponsored professional development, they haven’t had any in more than a decade. That’s because Louisiana’s elected officials haven’t always seen the light on the value of public education. Not one state bill for support staff training has passed in more than a decade.

In the meantime, paras’ continuing lack of professional stature is evident. For example, on teacher conference days, the special ed paras are not allowed to participate in discussions—even though they spend more time with their students and know more about them than anyone. They may be asked to shelve books and do filing  when they need to be coaching students in multiplication and division.

But about four years ago, Riggleman found a way to fulfill her aspirations for a bigger role. She attended a 10-day, AFT-sponsored training in Common Core math, and a separate five-day course. Afterward, she was asked if she wanted to become a national trainer. She did.

Now Riggleman travels the country training educators. “We go around now, and we train our paraprofessionals,” she says. “We all would love to have more professional development.”

She wants to impress on fellow PSRPs the importance of engaging with their local union. To make sure she doesn’t miss a beat, Riggleman also serves on the Louisiana Federation of Teachers paraeducator committee. “If you don’t socialize with paras at other schools,” she says, “you tend to lose sight of things.”

Why Common Core

One thing Riggleman’s partner on the math team, Jamye Smith, doesn’t want trainers to lose sight of is the purpose behind what they teach—that the Common Core is a set of academic standards, not a test. “There are a lot of misconceptions about Common Core still today,” says Smith, a special education teaching assistant in Buffalo, N.Y. Common Core was created in part so that students would be taught to the same standards from state to state, creating a level playing field for all.

Smith, a member of the Buffalo Educational Support Team, started training several years ago with five paras and the AFT’s educational issues department.

Since the cadre got started, it has trained hundreds of paras from Massachusetts to New Mexico. By taking students aside to reinforce material and catch them up to grade level, “we can actually dispel the myth that the Common Core is a test,” Smith says. “Common Core will allow our students to become college- and career-ready.”

And that, she adds, is the essence of professional development.

PSRP Reporter, Winter 2015 Download PDF (1.03 MB)
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Interested in doing what Jamye and Karen did? Ask your local officers about AFT summer academy or other ways to engage with your union.