Editor’s note: In our article “Paras: The unsung heroes of public schools,” we look at the challenges of triumphs of public education paraprofessionals (often called “paras”) and outline the critical role they play in the lives of individual students and school communities. We also profiled eight paras to get their personal insights. Here we meet Carrie Cain, a seattle para.
As a child, Carrie Cain would play “teacher.” After all, her mother was a teacher and her grandparents were teachers, too. To no one’s surprise, Cain grew up and went on to teach seventh-grade math, working for more than 20 years in the Riverview School District.
“I always saw it as a calling,” Cain says.
But then the pandemic hit and something shifted. “Covid broke me,” she says. “I still loved the world of education, I loved my students, but I was becoming disconnected in the classroom. I couldn’t see how to meet students’ needs within the mainstream system as they returned to in-school learning.”
Even though she knew she was done with teaching, she wasn’t ready to retire. A friend suggested that she might enjoy being an instructional assistant, and Cain soon found a middle school in South Seattle with several openings. While she had robust teaching credentials and had supervised her own teaching aides in the past, she was required to pursue additional training to support students with special educational needs or behavioral challenges, then pass a paraeducator assessment exam.
First order of business: breakfast
In her new role at as a middle school special education assistant, Cain begins her days preparing breakfast for students: applesauce for one, cereal for another, even noodles for a child who prefers a hot meal. Then she heads outside to help her them off the buses and into the classroom. Cain works in what her school district calls a “distinct” classroom. Of the six students in the class, some have Down syndrome, others are on the autism spectrum, and all have significant needs.
Under the supervision of Josie Stump, a certified special education teacher, she and two other paraeducators support these students to eat, whether that means opening a container of milk or lifting a spoon to a student’s mouth, to use the restroom, or to stay focused on an independent task, such as learning to tie their shoes or matching self-care items (toothpaste, toothbrush, dental floss) to place in the same bag.
One surprise since starting the job, however, is how “invisible” paraeducators can be, despite their much-needed presence in classrooms.
“I myself was guilty of it!” she says.
When she worked as a teacher supervising a general education classroom of 25 to 30 students, Cain says, “I was unaware of a lot of things, including things that kids needed. I’m not faulting teachers at all. They have so many kids. But paras fill that gap. They’re the safety net.”
Within the classroom, however, Cain’s joyful, caring, empowering presence is noticed. Stump says that students adore her.
“I mean, they’ve accidentally called her mom,” Stump says. “Even though she’s a para and that’s a different role than a teacher, I feel like she’s taught me so much.”
Within Seattle Public Schools, pay for an instructional assistant ranges from $23 and $38 per hour, and Cain, who earns on the higher end of the scale, believes that she is fairly compensated. That said, she has kept in touch with friends who work in other school districts, and is “shocked at the pay discrepancy. $20/hour is ridiculous to me. This is not a light job.”
A powerful career change
It is, however, a job she describes as life-changing. Despite Cain’s two decades as an educator, she speaks about her current group of middle schoolers with both laughter and awe.
One student, a native Mandarin speaker, has learned to read in English. He can now complete an entire beginning reader “Bob Book” on his own.
Another student who had daily meltdowns at the start of the year has transformed into a cheerful presence in the class, able to clearly communicate her needs. Yet another student, upon having to return a leftover birthday cupcake she had quietly smuggled to her desk, pronounced, “Well now I’m sad,” only to be met with cheers and applause for having successfully spoken a four-word sentence.
“It’s just so joyful to do this work,” Cain says. “I know I make a difference every day.”