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Classroom aides get training in special education teamwork

TAMPA — The teacher was set in his ways. His classroom aide had life experience, but she had no training.

He corrected her in front of the students. She felt isolated and undermined. Each was too busy to meet with the other.

The scenario, acted out Wednesday at Jefferson High School, is based on a real classroom situation that dragged on for months.

"It didn't get better because they didn't do the things they needed to do to improve the relationship," Nancy French, an expert in paraprofessionals, told an audience of special-needs aides.

It was a first for Hillsborough County: required training for workers who care for 29,000 learning-disabled or medically fragile students in exceptional student education, or ESE.

Each paraprofessional went through a half-day session led by French, who has studied and written about teacher-aide relationships for 20 years.

"Roles don't have to be equal in order to be equally relevant and important," she said before diving into issues that cause working relationships to break down.

Work styles and personality differences all play a part, she said. Unfortunately, ESE teachers often leave college with little to no training in how to supervise their aides.

The training emerged from a work group superintendent MaryEllen Elia formed in November after two student deaths. It wraps up today at Spoto High School and cost the district about $22,200 for more than 800 participants.

Participants were given materials they can bring to school to sharpen their relationship with co-workers and teachers, who will receive their own set.

Clarence Elliot, 47, nodded and laughed through much of the presentation. "It's really things we all know, but now we're getting on the same page," he said.

Elliot is an aide at LaVoy Exceptional Center, where some students are not only disabled, but aggressive.

"You have a thick skin," he said. "You have to love what you do. And you have to have a whole lot of patience."

Regina Williams, 56, has worked at Coleman Middle School for eight years. She said the session made her feel more confident about her work.

"Communication is definitely one of the key things," she said. "It's important for us to be able to talk to each other and figure out where we need to be with each other." In arranging the session, she said, the district is "definitely going the extra mile in order for us to be prepared."

In addition to this week's sessions, the district has produced safety videos and other training materials that principals will present in the preparation days before school begins Tuesday. Topics include elopement, a term that describes ESE students who run away from school, and a reminder that all employees are responsible for all students.

"We have to develop a positive culture," said deputy superintendent Jeff Eakins, who opened the session with a story from his days as an assistant principal. A young woman returned to the school, he said, asking about her favorite teacher, who turned out to be an aide.

"That was the person that she saw in her elementary career at that school as her teacher," Eakins said. "So I know that in the eyes of many of your students, you're seen the same way."

The district hopes to create career paths for paraprofessionals who would like to become teachers, Eakins said.

Separately, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association is in contract negotiations with the hope that wages, which now start at $8.42 an hour, will rise. A Tampa Bay Times study last year showed yearly earnings for Hillsborough ESE aides lag behind many other Florida districts, partly because of high turnover.

Union specialist Pam Jufko said the two sides are near an agreement that would address that disparity. "You will be getting something, but I can't tell you what," she told the aides, who applauded the news.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or

Classroom aides get training in special education teamwork 08/14/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 10:52pm]
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