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.

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