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 Steven Alvarez, a seattle para.
Late last June, instructional assistant Steven Alvarez got a message from the mother of a former student.
“In 4th and 5th grades, we worked really hard together on behavior and academics that he really struggled with,” Alvarez says. Now, the boy is headed to high school — and according to his mom, he would be marching in a parade to celebrate the transition. Alvarez didn’t think twice. He showed up on the parade route with a “congratulations” sign to cheer on his former student.
“It’s been three years since he’s seen me, right? And there he is walking towards me and my sign, and he stops and stares at me like, ‘I can’t place you, but I know you,'” says Alvarez, who gets emotional just thinking about the moment. “I say ‘it’s Mr. Alvarez!’ And his eyes got so big. He’s trying to be this cool 8th-grade kid with his friends, right? But he comes up to me and shakes my hand.” The student’s friends inquired about the man with the sign:
“He told them, ‘This is someone that helped me,'” says Alvarez. “I teared up right there in the street. I was his teacher. I helped him level up. This is why I do what I do.”
Alvarez, who refers to the students assigned to his care as “my students,” has a lot of memories that illustrate why he left a more lucrative research job to become a Seattle Public Schools paraeducator 17 years ago — and never looked back. There’s the bike-to-school dad who thanked him for greeting his child every day. And the former student he watched stand up from his walker to receive his high school diploma. “I was a sopping mess,” Alvarez says.
“I absolutely love my job and the kids I work with. I look forward to going to school every single day.”
The ‘stoic’ tool:
With his bold red spectacles and Converse shoes (he changes shoe color daily), Alvarez is known for his high energy and enthusiasm as he helps students face challenges head-on. He’s also known for his calm in a crisis.
“When one of my colleagues said, ‘Steven, when a kid is so upset that they’re just yelling at you and screaming and throwing things, you’re just so stoic,’ I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment. But then I thought about it,” says Alvarez. What the colleague saw as stoic is one of Alvarez’s primary teaching tools: modeling.
“When a kid is dysregulated, I’m purposefully breathing in and out. I really want the student to mimic my breathing and do what I’m doing so they can get regulated,” he explains. “It’s my job to stay really calm and relaxed, to show them what they need to be doing and that they can do it.” Recently he’s noticed more and more of his fellow educators doing “square breathing,” grounding themselves before entering the classroom.
“It absolutely works,” Alvarez says.
Walking for happiness
Any day during the school year, you might see Alvarez and a student “walking for happiness” around the school. You wouldn’t know it, but a few minutes earlier, that student felt agitated or possibly out of control.
“We take a quick walk down the hallway, skipping sometimes, and talk about anything and everything besides what is upsetting them. We talk about my cats, we talk about their pets, we talk about Legos, whatever,” Alvarez says. “Five minutes later, things have deescalated.”
“A lot of my kids struggle in reading, writing, math, or other areas, and that starts the anxiety that leads to behaviors. They’re stuck, they’re anxious, and they can’t break the cycle,” says Alvarez, who was named the 2020 Educational Support Person of the Year by the Washington Education Association. “But once you get them out of the classroom and chat with them about anything else, you can break the cycle. Then we can have that conversation and work on academics. I can tell them, ‘My friend, I’m here to help you. You’re not alone.”
Practicing what he preaches
Sometime in the next two years, Alvarez will step down from his position as an instructional assistant and move into the Special Education teacher’s seat. He is currently working on his teaching certification and plans to complete a Master’s in Education.
Although he is torn about ending a role in education that has been fulfilling in countless ways, Alvarez says becoming a certified teacher is the “natural progression, at least for me.” He encourages kids to keep trying to level up in learning. “And I realize I’ve got to practice what I preach!”
Alvarez feels strongly that better pay and job security would help keep paraeducators in their positions, although he says most, like him, “are not doing this for the money.
What it takes to be a paraeducator
“You have to really love working with kids.”
As districts around the state struggle to fill open paraeducator positions, Alvarez says he hopes more retired people or those from other professions consider the paraprofessional field — “they have a wealth of experience to bring to the table.”
He also has a tip for those interested in earning an education degree and becoming a certified teacher.
“Any person thinking about a teaching career should become an instruction assistant,” he says. “Before you spend that time, get inside the classroom and see if this is what you want to do. I believe in the apprentice model, and that is what’s missing. You could be learning as you go, see how it all really works.
“And,” says Alvarez. “I think the retention would be there if they knew what they were getting into.”
Once a researcher, always a researcher
Alvarez says he has no regrets about leaving research for education.
In many ways, he’s still a researcher. He’s always looking for ways – new or tried-and-true – to help students reach their full potential in the classroom and beyond.
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