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Paraeducator Kathleen Roll

Paraeducator Kathleen Roll can't image a more important job than helping students access their education. Photo by Joshua Huston

Hard to imagine a more rewarding job

Former teacher Kathleen Roll found her dream of one-to-one connection as a special education assistant

Kathleen Roll remembers the day a young boy — we’ll call him Ben —was brought to her in tears. As a special education assistant at Whittier Elementary in Seattle, one of Roll’s main jobs is to assess what a struggling child needs and develop a way to provide it.  

“Ben was in our program, but he was not on my schedule, and somebody walked him up to me by the hand. He was just sobbing uncontrollably.” Ben didn’t know Roll, and she hadn’t interacted with him before. 

“I don’t know why he’s crying. Nobody knows why he’s crying,” she recalls. “The person who brought him to me just said, ‘He’s in your program. Do your thing.’” 

Doing her ‘thing’

She started to do her thing — to understand Ben’s needs and address them. “I’m just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. I’m trying blowing bubbles, breathing exercises, and funny jokes. And then, eventually, I start counting 1, 2, 3 . . . I get to about 17 and realize he has started counting with me. I am thinking fast — he has stopped crying. We’re counting. We’re getting into the 20s. We’re getting to the 30s; I drop out, and he counts all the way to 100.”

Ben is just one example of why Roll loves her work as a paraeducator. 

“I learned several things that day,” says Roll. “One is that the predictability and the pattern were really helpful for Ben. Two, he could count high. And three, I had his attention. We went on and did a little talking; we tried a little drawing, which devolved into him throwing a bunch of things and becoming very upset. 

Looking for the ah-ha!

“And that’s when I realized, Oh! The fine motor skills were not there, which was very frustrating for this child. Over the course of the year, he spent more and more time on my schedule. The fine motor was frustrating him, and I just loved finding ways for him to express himself. I knew he was smart and I wanted him to feel smart. I’d say ‘You can spell with Scrabble tiles, or magnet letters. Let’s find ways that you can do this without hitting that frustration wall.”

Roll resists the reference to paraeducators as the “unsung heroes” of school, although her description of the job sounds heroic.

“Our job is important because we are accessibility experts or inclusionary coaches,” she says. “Understanding how to make classrooms accessible to ALL students is what our job is all about. 

An expansive, critical role

“Generally speaking, the more difficulty a child has with the general education setting, the more time that child spends with a paraprofessional,” she adds. “We teach kids strategies to succeed at school and work with teachers on how a child could best be present in the room. We work with special education teachers, general education teachers, administrators, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and others. 

“We take in all this information, know the child’s individual education plan and behavioral plans, evaluate the child and the situation in front of us, and constantly finesse how we support each child,” Roll continues. “We need to think on our feet, quickly, all day long, about what each kid is capable of and how to best support them in all settings at school.” 

The teacher paradox

Roll came to the paraeducator field already well-versed in the workings of a classroom. She was a high school teacher in Chicago, then worked in San Diego with the juvenile court and community schools as a long-term substitute before stepping back from education for a time. As a teacher, she felt frustrated that she couldn’t spend more time one-on-one with kids who needed extra help. 

“I knew if I could work with those kids, they could make more progress,” Roll says. “They are really struggling, but you could never spend a sufficient amount of time with them because there were always so many other kids in the room.”

She was unfamiliar with the paraeducator role in her previous positions, but a special education teacher and friend at Whittier Elementary knew about her educational background and described the job.

A perfect fit

“I thought, oh my gosh, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what I like to do— to be with the kids who are having trouble academically, socially, whatever their trouble is in the school setting, and really be able to work with one child. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to sit and spend time and work on what the kid needs to work on instead of, here’s the curriculum, and I must get it into as many of these kids as I can as efficiently as I can.”

Roll says the biggest challenge of her work is not the kids but the staffing.

“When we are low on staff, we aren’t able to put in as much of the important preventative work; we are putting out fires. We simply don’t have the people to do the work as well as we can when we are properly staffed,” she says. “To do inclusion right, more paraprofessionals, not fewer, are needed.”

Never bored

Still, she says she has never had a dull day as a paraeducator.

“When we are appropriately staffed and working with a plan in place, it is hard to imagine a more rewarding job. The students are the center of the para universe. I get to spend each day with fun, curious, intelligent, energetic, and silly kids. Every child I have met has passions and personality traits that are engaging and charming, and joyful. 

To be a special education assistant, says Roll, you must love kids. 

“I’m flooded with the combined memories of many kids,” she says. It can be really emotional to watch how hard these kids work and how much they can accomplish.”

The joy of watching a child bloom

She cherishes the memories of watching Ben progress from being shy, frustrated, and overstimulated to being more confident, open, and communicating. 

“He was so great to work with because he was intensely interesting,” Roll says. “I’m not going to say everything was hunky dory after that, but there were just those kinds of lovely moments where I witnessed a child enjoying learning because their needs were being considered and we were finding ways that he could shine. 

“I remember most the first time when he played with a friend on the playground. Just watching him play with a friend, I was like, ‘Oh my god, look at that! That’s friendship, and what a beautiful, beautiful thing.'”

More at Seattle’s Child:

Paras: The unsung heroes of public schools

They walked for me

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at