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Commentary: Support staff must be prioritized in schools

Emma+Kate+Johansen+23+writes+about+her+experiences+as+a+paraprofessional+and+shares+the+importance+of+prioritizing+support+staff+by+providing+fair+wages.
Courtesy of Eleanor Kay Images
Emma Kate Johansen ’23 writes about her experiences as a paraprofessional and shares the importance of prioritizing support staff by providing fair wages.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest commentary. The opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.

I graduated from Ithaca College in May 2023 with a screenwriting degree, but just about a month before graduation, the Writer’s Guild of America went on strike. Without writing jobs to apply for, I floundered. My mom, a lifelong teacher, suggested I apply for school support staff positions for a district near my Connecticut hometown while I figured out my next steps. I didn’t count on the faculty needing as much help as the students. 

In August, when I went in for an interview, I was offered a position as a fourth grade classroom paraprofessional (teacher’s aide). My job in this position is to provide support for students in the classroom with accommodations for ADHD, autism and other learning differences. However, from the first day I stepped foot in the classroom, it was clear that the six students I was explicitly assigned to work with were not the only ones in need of assistance. Almost immediately, I observed teachers drowning in responsibility, undercompensated for the extra work they perform, hounded to meet unreasonable deadlines and solving issues that were not their job to fix. 

Our country’s teachers are overwhelmed. I believe one of the main reasons for this is a lack of support in their classrooms and from administration. I work with a fourth grade ELA (Reading and Writing) teacher in what is considered a “support staff” position. I hop around at the school doing a few different duties, but mainly I take on whatever tasks are needed to lighten the workload for the classroom teacher. 

The structure of fourth grade at the school I work in is set up into three teaching “teams” with one ELA teacher and one Math/Science teacher. Each teacher is responsible for 40 students. Even with me in the classroom to help, students are behind on one assignment or another. There is another ELA teacher in the same grade with no classroom support and many students that need help. There are simply not enough paraprofessionals to go around. In fact, at the beginning of January, our principal hired a few college education majors who were home for their winter break to temporarily help out at the school because we so desperately needed assistance. Unfortunately, I don’t think the permanent assistance needed will come unless some big changes are made. 

One of the reasons that public schools lack adequate support staff is that the salary is very low. Support staff are hourly employees, not salaried. This means that even though I am considered a full-time employee, I only work and get paid for 32 hours per week. In the interest of transparency and to emphasize the issues within this profession, I am paid $16.01 per hour because this is my first year working in a school. 

The pay scale changes with experience and varies based on responsibilities. For example, one-to-one paraprofessionals, who work with students with higher support needs, have a higher starting rate of $19 per hour. Pay scales for support staff have recently made local and national news in the neighboring state Massachusetts, where the Newton Public School District is on strike. One of the issues they are striking for is a living wage for support staff. In Newton, paraprofessional contracts begin at $27,000 per year. It amazed me that support staff in a wealthy Boston suburb made only marginally more than me in Connecticut. Regardless of location, these wages are not sustainable and contribute to the lack of support staff in schools. 

I am lucky to live at home right now, as I don’t have to pay for rent or utilities. However, when I receive my paychecks, I often think about my colleagues who need to pay rent or live entirely off of this income. I am very cognizant of the privilege I have. I am able to save a good percentage of each paycheck and use the rest for smaller grocery trips, gas and any unexpected costs. However, if I needed to pay rent and buy groceries for a whole household, I would be scraping by with maybe an extra $30 per month to do anything fun or nice for myself. Schools are desperate for help, but school districts refuse to pay support staff what we deserve for the amount of support students today need. 

If school districts pay a living wage to support staff, teachers and students benefit. Support staffers are much more likely to be helpful to both students and teachers if they are not burnt out from working extra jobs to get by. I believe that if school districts pay support staff a living wage, teacher burnout would decrease and student performance would increase. If you are entering an education field, be aware that this issue is pervasive and nationwide.

Emma Kate Johansen (she/her) is an Ithaca College alum. Contact her at [email protected].

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