The paraeducator path to special education teaching: three recent COE alumni

By Emily Taylor

Three recent College of Education (COE) alumni, Devin Gallagher, Lisa Garner and Matthew Cuda, share a common path to their new roles as special education classroom teachers: they all started as paraeducators. Paraeducators, sometimes called teacher aides or teacher assistants, or just paras, play a critical role in classrooms, providing support to teachers and students where a high teacher-to-student ratio is needed. While many paraeducators choose to stay in that role, others find it is a valuable way to gain teaching experience and confirm their interest in pursuing a career as a classroom teacher.

As these alumni reflected on their first school year as classroom teachers during a pandemic, their experiences share common themes.

Devin Gallagher feels very fortunate to have started in his new role this year as a classroom teacher leading a combined kindergarten-to-second-grade classroom focused on communication skills and behaviors (CB) at Llewellyn Elementary in Southeast Portland.

Devin Gallagher, COE alumnus and special education teacher at Llewellyn Elementary School in Portland. (Photo provided)

“I’ve felt so welcomed by all of the other teachers and really valued and respected by the principal,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher worked as a paraeducator for the previous four years and described dealing with some “imposter syndrome” when he started as the head classroom teacher in fall of 2020. Now he recognizes that his experience as a paraeducator is a tremendous asset.

“There are so many skills I picked up during my four years as a para that I might have taken for granted before, but now I recognize the value of that experience.”

His experience also impacts the way he interacts with colleagues.

“I’m working with amazing paras now. I think remembering how I preferred to be treated is key,” Gallagher noted. “We are all part of the team, everyone should feel valued and empowered.”

Gallagher completed his teacher licensure and master’s degree while working as a para. One of the best parts of that path was being able to immediately apply what he was learning in his work.

“I’d learn about something in class at night and then put it into practice the next day,” he said.

Looking back on the challenges of his first year as a classroom teacher during a pandemic, Gallagher said there are some practices from this year that he hopes to maintain. For example, he plans to offer to meet virtually with every student and their family before the school year starts.

Lisa Garner, COE alumna and special education teacher at Pacific Middle School in Vancouver. (Photo provided)

Lisa Garner, a special education teacher at Pacific Middle School in the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, began working as a paraeducator at her daughter’s elementary school.

After three years she decided she wanted to pursue full teacher licensure. She was drawn to the COE’s inclusive approach. She continued working as a paraeducator for two years while she completed her master’s degree.

Looking back on her first year as a classroom teacher, Garner said that the staff at her school have been “an incredible support.” Like Gallagher, she also found some unanticipated benefits to having part of the school year online.

“You are really in their homes with them during online learning,” she said. “It allowed us to get to know each other more.”

With everyone at home, her students seemed more open to sharing things about themselves and their traditions, hobbies, and interests.

“Every Wednesday we used the Morning Meeting to share and get to know their peers better.”

Matthew Cuda, COE alumnus and special education teacher at Grant High School in Portland. (Photo provided)

Matthew Cuda just completed his first year teaching in an intensive skills classroom (ISC) at Grant High School in Northeast Portland. The ISC is a self-contained program with three levels, and students rotate among teachers. Cuda enjoys that he teaches different subjects and at multiple levels.

Starting his first year teaching during the pandemic was challenging, of course.

“Online teaching is not what we’re trained to do, or our expertise. The way I saw myself and my role drastically shifted. I gained new skills, including new technology skills,” he said.

In addition, the students weren’t prepared for remote online learning: “They often had no support at home, and I was challenged to help them resolve technical issues remotely,” Cuda said.

Although during online teaching it wasn’t possible to just “pop in next door” to ask a colleague a quick question, they did have a formal daily team meeting where he was able to get input and problem-solve with other teachers. Cuda values the collaborative approach of his team.

Cuda also worked hard to develop curriculum to supplement what is provided for special education students. For example, for his English class, he wanted to give his students “access to literature, using the ISC curriculum, but incorporating additional texts.” Taking a cue from his students’ interest in fantasy genres, Cuda found a graphic novel version of The Odyssey.  Building on that, later in the term they read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, which has been considered a modern take on the other hero’s adventure story.

For his U.S. government class, he was able to incorporate discussion of the year’s events.

“For this population, it was really valuable to give them this opportunity. They often feel that people don’t listen to them or take them seriously. But of course, they hear about what’s been happening, and they have opinions,” Cuda said.

All three of these first-year teachers had to make unforeseen adjustments as their districts transitioned from all-online delivery to various combinations of online and in-person instruction. They each discussed the challenges of helping their students get comfortable with new routines, as well as managing the COVID-related health protocols.

For Cuda and Gallagher, both teachers in Portland Public Schools, that meant adapting quickly after spring break. For Cuda, whose second child was born in January, it also meant that he had just four weeks to set up new childcare arrangements.

Although adapting quickly to the return of some in-person instruction with students wasn’t easy, being in person offers many benefits. Cuda found that in-person instruction made it easier to effectively measure students’ progress and identify areas where they need help.

“When we were online, I couldn’t always see it, but in person I could tell when a student was trying but just needed a little more time to get to the answer,” Cuda explained.

Despite the challenges of their first year, these teachers are not deterred.

“I have so much to learn, and that’s part of it,” noted Cuda. “Even veteran teachers are still learning. I try to learn from the challenges and remind myself that I’m doing a good job when students are engaged and enjoying learning.”

Garner is looking forward to getting to know new students in the fall and to seeing the growth they have all had from this difficult year.

The teachers are looking forward to smaller changes too, as Gallagher pointed out. Gallagher, who is also a musician, enjoys incorporating music into lessons, often singing and playing his ukulele. He’s been glad to have students in the classroom part-time this spring and looks forward to a day when they won’t need to wear masks in school.

“It’s hard to sing with a mask!” he said.

To share stories about the College of Education, contact media relations specialist Emily Taylor at eta2@pdx.ed

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