In her 28 years as a paraprofessional, Marla Rasmussen has worked in three different school districts. She’s helped children with special needs learn to write their names, to speak, to walk. Yet in those three decades, she has never earned a livable wage.
“You need a second income,” she says, “either from a partner or another job.”
We are all educators
To make ends meet when her kids were younger, Marla worked as many as three jobs at once. “One day a week, I cleaned a house for an extra $25. I’ve mowed lawns to cover rent. I did inventory at Costco.”
In her current role as the union president for paraprofessional leadership within the Seattle Education Association, Marla says, “My push is for people to understand that this is a career choice.” She seeks to ensure that paraprofessionals are compensated fairly and that they receive training to help them thrive at work.
“Without paraprofessionals in our schools, they won’t function. Teachers wouldn’t be able to teach. Students wouldn’t be able to learn. It’s a profession that needs to be honored. We’re all educators.”
Like mother like daughter
In fact, a 2016 study showed just how much impact teaching assistants have. Not only did their presence in schools help academically – boosting math and reading scores, especially among students of color – but they also improved behavior, reducing both absentee rates and tardiness.
Alisha Rasmussen followed in her mother’s footsteps and works as a paraprofessional at a junior high in the Puyallup School District. At $27 per hour, her salary is on the higher end of the pay scale (pay is variable depending on education, experience and the requirements of the position).
Even as Alisha supports her mother’s endeavors to improve the profession, she is training to become a teacher. “I love being a para, but I also would love to generate change,” Alisha Rasmussen says. In her experience, while paraprofessionals can create change in a classroom or with individual students, they “face roadblocks” when making systemic changes.
A hopeful change-agent
Alisha has pushed to bring more trauma-informed practices into the classrooms and increase the use of assistive technology to promote student independence.
“Our voices aren’t heard at the district level. We get a lot of, ‘Oh, why don’t you check in with your teacher about that,” she says. “I would love to see a joint effort between paraprofessionals and classroom teachers to advocate and create change, since paraprofessionals are too often overlooked in a hierarchical system that claims to see us as equals in education.”
Increasing need, increasing burnout
Over the years, the Rasmussens have also observed an increase in behavioral issues among students, which affects paraprofessionals in terms of both physical safety and burnout.
“We’re talking students who are easily escalated, throwing chairs, hurting other people, hurting themselves,” says Marla. “It is not unusual for our staff to be punched in the face.” She adds that staff being harmed was rare when she first started working. “Now, it’s an everyday occurrence.”
Despite the significant difficulties that come with the role, both mother and daughter say that the bonds they’ve formed with their students make the job worthwhile.
Helping kids find their voice
Once, Marla was asked to support a high schooler who was selectively mute.
“I was supposed to be his voice in the classroom,” she says. As she worked with him, however, she discovered that all he needed was time. When asked a question, his face remained blank, so peers and teachers assumed that he couldn’t respond or didn’t understand.
But Marla noticed that if given a few minutes to process, “His whole face would change. It would just light up. Then he would tell you about his interests and his passions. I wasn’t there to speak for him, but to make sure others gave him that space.”
For the Rasmussens, being a paraprofessional is about education, yes, but also about transformation. That highschooler? Marla smiles. “People saw him as a new person.”