Saturday, January 7, 2012

Something of Importance

My school

Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.


Those of you bored by following my “career” know all my valiant attempts have not led to a full time teaching position. Last summer, after having no interviews for any jobs I applied for, I started looking for full time instructional aide position.

The upside: stability

The downside: low pay

I received interview requests. When I went to these interviews I found out that I was competing with other teachers. Several years ago, people without college degrees were aides. Today they are certified teachers with Master’s Degrees.

Stupid economy.

By the end of August, I had two job offers—one for an extended term sub for a special education teacher on maternity leave and the other for a professional aide job. I took the latter.

It was hard to be back in a position without control of my own classroom. But the last few years have been all about hard.

I’m lucky. A wonderful teacher runs the classroom I work in. She treats me like a teacher instead of sending me to make photocopies all day. Based on her lead, the students accept me as an authority as well. I’m the only aide in my grade with my name next to the teacher’s on the door.

If I don’t find a job next year, I’ll be doing this again (as long as there’s $ for me in this district. Let’s hope there is). I could be placed in any classroom, with any teacher. Knowing this makes me appreciate my current situation even more.

My official ‘boss’ is the special education teacher. She has me busy. Because one student in the class has behavior/socialization issues, I follow the students to all specialists (music, art, language) and lunch/recess. The other class periods, I help the inclusion students who need academic support. I wear many hats. Sometimes I rotate around the room, helping anyone who needs it. Other times I work with a group of low performers. There are times I help just one or two students. Because I need to watch the student at recess, it means I squeeze in lunch alone during an academic period. This makes me feel guilty because there are kids who need help, but I’m not there. And sometimes I have to wait for the verdict while special ed. and general ed. figure out what I’ll be doing next.

When I decided to return to school to get a Master’s in Special Education, I did so with reluctance. I wanted to be a Social Studies teacher. What if getting this degree meant I wound up as a different kind of teacher?

But now that I’m helping children on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) I realize I’m good at this. Instinctually, I get how to reach them during reading group. Even better, I struggled in math, so when I teach them, I have strategies that WORK. I can REACH THEM.

One example was teaching long division. If the students had to divide 42 into 225, they didn’t know whether to put the 42 into 2, 25, or 225. How could I make it obvious to them? I said, “If I’m a size 42, can I squeeze into a little size 2 pair of pants?” They shook their heads. “If I’m a size 42, can I squeeze into a size 22 pair of pants?” They shook their heads again. “If I’m a size 42, can I fit into a roomy pair of 225 pants?” They agreed.

Just so you know, I do this complete with body movements.

From that moment on, they used the pants trick to figure out the answer.

Another example is when I read The Witches by Roald Dahl with struggling readers. Two students read with no inflection, made every sentence run into the next without pause and spoke so quietly I could barely hear them. When we got to the part with the Grand High Witch, I hammed up that Eastern European accent. When it was the students’ turn to read, I insisted on them exaggerating the voice loudly. Those two students’ fluencies and volume have improved ever since.

My favorite example is a student who always wears a vacant expression during math. If she’s in my group, I catch her staring into space. After a few absences, they had me work one on one with her to catch her up on fractions. That special attention transformed her. A few days later when she joined my group, she was engaged, the first to raise her hand, and KNEW WHAT SHE WAS DOING.

She beamed. I beamed.

I revel in those moments. Their successes are my successes. Even if they forget half of it the next day (because they have problems with memory retention) I reached them in the moment. They felt proud when it made sense. And I’m proud of them.

I’m not making a lot of money (sorry, husband). But I am doing something important.


  1. That's what makes it all worthwhile.

  2. While it may not be perfect, you seem to not only be enjoying yourself but making a difference too.
    : j

  3. You ARE doing something important. As a former teacher and a parent of a child with global disabilities who is on an IEP, I appreciate you!

  4. And NO AMOUNT of money could buy those moments! Sounds like the universe has revealed your place in it. :)

    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  5. Yes, you most certainly are doing something important and worthwhile. I'm jealous and envious.

  6. You're definitely doing something important! I love the strategies you've come up with--what a difference you're making in all those kids' lives!

  7. First of all, that's AMAZING that you have a great teacher to work with who respects your abilities.

    Second, I think I need you to do the pants dance to tutor me in math.

    Third, if you were out here, I would hook you up with plenty of math tutoring jobs!

  8. You're an inspirational teacher Theresa and I'm sure those students learn a lot from you.

    All the best. You do great making changes in your students lives.

  9. Theresa, I would imagine the parents of those kids in your care are delighted to have you.
    We deal with a very innovative special ed dept in our school, they use cookery to help with maths (I can imagine you doing that), the weighing etc helps the kids learn, while its fun.
    They also use really fun children's poetry to help with literacy and expression. It seems to be a challenging but rewarding area.

  10. It's a shame that the people who are most important in our children's education, especially those children who are struggling, are not paid their true value. I'm glad that there are people like you, who obviously care, still in the system.

  11. Lovely Theresa! This is where I KNOW I am the village idiot with the permanent dunce cap in Maths. I do not understand the division thing! I truly don't. I'm reading it again and again and trying to visualise the getting 42 into 2/22/225?!?!?! LOL!! I need to be in your class! I need help! LOL!

    Yay for teachers like you!!

    Take care

  12. That's awesome that you found you're good at this. I'll be facing looking for a new job in about 1 1/2 years and will probably do like you--take a pay cut to get one. But I'm hoping it will be a rewarding job like yours.

    If you have any tips on how to find a job--I haven't looked in over 20 years--please share them with me.

  13. @ Liz, yes it does.

    @ Alesa, I am mostly enjoying myself. The 4 days on the 6-day cycle when I have to watch another teacher teach Social Studies is painful. But making a difference is fulfilling, which I rarely got to do being a daily sub.

    @ Susan, thank you. It's nice to be appreciated.

    @ Jules, I think in the long run the job and pursuing the new degree with be the best thing to happen to me. My professor even gave me a future job idea to take to make all these credits (which would make me expensive to hire as a teacher) less of an issue.

    @ Miranda, thank you. I'm lucky that I'm doing to close to what I'd like to be doing.

    @ Meredith, I hope so. The nice thing about my job is that I've gotten to help kids in several classes, so I get lots of greetings and have conversations with kids all around the school.

    @ Sophia, thanks! I've actually been hoping to find a good tutor gig. One came up, but I had a scheduling conflict.

    As for the math dance, it's awesome!

    @ Romance Book Haven, thank you for the comment. I appreciate it.

    @ Brigid, your school sounds wonderful. When we introduced fractions, I wished the lead teacher had used measuring cups. I almost brought them in the next day, but I knew that teacher wouldn't have appreciated it. Nothing like tactile stimulation to make a lesson concrete.

    @ Sarah, I think that too. These students who have plans for additional support spend most of their days with someone who gets paid very little. And it used to be (until the job market tanked) that the person helping them had no education background.

    @ Old Kitty, I needed a math teacher like me, too. I come up with these tricks because I needed them to survive myself. The old didactic way to teach was no help to people like us!

    @ Natalie, good luck in your future job search. What did you do before? What kind of job do you plan to look for?

    I'd recommend you volunteering part-time in this period before you look. I'd also recommend you can show you're up to speed in any technology you might need. Just about every job using something. For teachers, have smart board training is a help, along with being able to use websites to enhance teaching.

    Good luck!

  14. Those kids are going to remember you because not only are you helping them in the moment, but you're believing in them. That's the most important thing of all! If you don't get a teaching position, it will be a huge shame for all those kids you could have touched!

  15. Thanks to Pennsylvania's Governor Corbett (JERK) slashing our education budget by several million, we lost most of our para-professionals this year. It was a real blow, as we depend on our aides. They put everything they had into their job -- like you, they believed in the children.

    I am happy you're finding more satisfaction in this job than you expected, and I hope the district is taking note of it.

  16. What a wonderful post. Teaching is a challenging and amazing profession. Good luck finding a job. It's a tough time right now. (I teach h.s. art)

  17. Theresa - you're a born teacher! How incredible that you do something that matters and that makes a huge difference. I wish your salary reflected the importance of the work that you're doing! That you can connect, help & believe in them will probably mean more in their lives than you'll ever know :)

  18. Good for you! I'm so glad that there are teachers like you out there, and hope my daughter is lucky enough to have someone as caring and creative as you :)

  19. This is so wonderul, Theresa. No, it may not be good money, but how many people can say they get a sense of fulfillment from their job? You're lucky, and you sound like you know it. Such great news!

  20. Ok, firstly you're amazing and inspiring. Secondly.... STUPID ECONOMY! It's because teachers DO find satisfaction and purpose and value in underpaid jobs that keeps Teachers with Masters out of actual teacher jobs. But what else is there to do? Imagine being qualified to the level of an Aide - you're now competing against fully trained (with Masters) teachers. Where does it end?

    Special Ed is a tough gig and I take my hat off to you. You seem to be able to make those connections with the kids that would otherwise be left floundering and staring off into space.

    The US education system fascinates me. The funding (and how it is funded at District levels) is interesting. Why is it that education is the first place to take money from? Should it not be seen as a long term investment not a cost, cost, cost! Argh. I could go on.

    PS - love your division story. I am totally going to use that!

  21. Hi Theresa,

    Those children will certainly remember you for their whole lifetime as a teacher who made the difference!

    I have special place in my heart for my favorite teachers so I know.

    All the best!

  22. @ Jemi, thanks for the nice words. I keep trying to go in and make a difference no matter what the capacity.

    @ Dianne, that's awful. I'm surprised it's legal since I would think it would be nearly impossible to now fulfill the IEPs. I firmly believe education is not where funding should be cut.

    I hope I'm making a good impression. I try to treat everyday like it's a job interview.

    @ Jaye, I like hearing from other teachers. I can't imagine not working with children, so I'm just glad to be in a school no matter what the capacity. For now.

    @ Kathleen, thanks. Yes, more $ would be good.

    @ Jess, thank you. I hope your daughter has wonderful teachers, too.

    @ Jessica, I wish everyone could have a fulfilling job. This is much better than subbing.

    @ Ellembee, how wonderful to hear from you! When my daughter was a baby and I worked in an aide job, people snapped me up because I was the only certified teacher applying for aide jobs. I was also offered two teacher jobs when my daughter was about two. I kick myself everyday for not taking one of them. I never thought the economy would tank and I'd be in this position.

    The US wants to be the innovator and yet education is where we often cut first. At some point, our losses will be too large.

    Let me know if the long division trick works!

  23. I wish you were living somewhere near me so I could get lot of private tuition jobs for you!

  24. Those breakthroughs are what it's all about. And those kids are so lucky to have someone like you who truly cares about them. Your enthusiasm inspires me.

  25. I'm pretty sure I had a vacant expression in math back then, too. Lol.

    Sounds like you're a great teacher.

  26. Oh, man, are you ever! I got tears in my eyes reading about how much careful thought and effort you put into teaching those kids. Teaching is an incredibly difficult profession (for more reasons these days than ever before!), and for children with special needs, even more so. It would be easy to get burned out, and no one could blame you! But here you are, creatively investing in these children every single day. THANK YOU.

  27. "She beamed. I beamed."
    That is just awesomeness! :)

  28. You ARE doing something important--both with teaching these little guys to read and with all the stories you told last year of helping kids. You're passionate and you care. And those guys will never forget you. :o) Keep it up! <3

  29. Anyone who has worked with kids and experienced the moment those "disconnected" ones turn around and engage will understand how you must have felt.

    Congratulations on doing something very worthwhile. Now I'm keeping my fingers crossed for some material compensation to go along with that satisfaction you greatly deserve.

  30. As I've said before, Theresa, you are a GOOD teacher. From one teacher to another, I would GLADLY place my own child in your capable hands! :-)

  31. What you're doing is SO important! And that pants trick is AWESOME! Bless you for making them giggle during math. :)

  32. You're making a difference in those kids' lives, and that's a big thing. You're an awesome teacher, Theresa, even though your title is aide.

  33. It sounds like you are a blessing to those students... plus, I would have loved to have seen those body gestures while you were explaining about division hehehe.

  34. You are definitely doing something important! What you are doing matters a lot. I had lots of teacher assistants in my years of teaching and they are invaluable to the whole class, not just the student they are shadowing. It's important to interact with all the kids not just the one you "assigned" to.

    I love your division analogy!

  35. You are so wonderful. I hope these kids parents know just how awesome it is to have someone as educated as you working with their kids. They're probably a bunch of ingrates. But you are amazing, Theresa and definitely one of my heroes.

  36. You know, I think you're finding your way in through the back door. You'll soon come into your own and have gained valuable experience while waiting. I imagine all those kids love you, too.

  37. I'm sure they feel that pride coming from you, too. And that must mean so much to them, to have that vote of confidence helping them too. I'll bet you're one of their favorites.

  38. Lord knows we need more people who are good at IEPs and helping special needs children. I am glad you excelling, and, even better yet, enjoying what you are doing!!

  39. In our school system, teachers' aides are called para-pros. When my kids start a new school year and there is a para-pro with a teaching degree -- and especially a masters degree -- I am thrilled beyond words. Your contributions take your classroom to the next level in ways non-certified teaching aids can't. Commitment and passion for teaching go far, but your specific training is the key. I hope one day you have a classroom of your own, because I know you will soar in that role. But when that happens, I hope you're fortunate enough to have a Theresa Milstein-like aide as your wing man/woman!

  40. Sometimes doing something that's important and making you happy is worth its weight in gold!

    Sounds like you've found a good balance for the moment.

  41. You are amazing! Just keep reminding yourself of that. Reaching kids isn't easy at the best of times, but you have a gift. There's definitely something to be said for a steady income. We all have to find a way through these hard times, and eventually we will all come out the other side, possibly with new skills and a new appreciation for what we can do.

  42. Hi Theresa .. sounds like you've got it taped - good for you, because it's definitely not the easiest and if you didn't enjoy it - it would reflect everywhere and on everyone.

    I quite understand .. I have similar with the oldies - repeating things, but they're so pleased and chuffed that someone's paying attention .. and I've started writing stories on them or about their experiences - they love it.

    Good luck with all your hard work - I'm sure it will pay off in the long run ...

    Cheers to you .. even if only with a cup of tea .. Hilary

  43. So cool. Those lucky kids. You're exactly where you're supposed to be.

    P.S. Is it really January already? Yipes!

  44. You certainly are doing something important! I had coffee just today with a friend whose son has an IEP. He's a freshman in high school so it's been a rough transition this year. She met with the school yesterday and found out they'll be giving him extra help, like extra teachers in his classrooms. My friend was so relieved and thankful to know he would have people helping her son with his struggles.

  45. I have said this before. But. YOU ARE SO DANG AWESOME!!!!!!!!!! < you. These kids will never forget you. I love the giggle factor. Wishing I had a teacher like you when I was there age.

    I'm proud of you, girlfriend. You have some lucky students. (((hugs)))

    *checks under rock for Mojo*

  46. Sounds like you know what you're good at and you're making it work. Money definitely isn't everything. Satisfaction counts for a lot in my book.

  47. Theresa, you know well that it just isn't always about the money. There's nothing quite like the feeling of doing something worthwhile! All the best to you in your situation.


  48. What you're doing is so important to those children.You must know that they will draw on your influences for a lifetime,
    Sometimes we accidentally find what we are truly meant to do.
    Please keep up the good work.

  49. i was just thinking about you the other day, wondering how you were.

    sorry the job you want isnt there yet.

    you are obviously NEEDED elsewhere! way to go!
    i've been in many similar situations, its awesome to help those who many give up on or dont have time for. sometimes showing you care is the biggest motivator!

    keep up the good work =)

  50. You so are doing something important, Theresa! you are changing these kids' lives for the better. you are going to be the reason they succeed, and the teacher they look back on and say, "That was he best teacher i ever had!" It's unfortunate that the money doesn't match the importance of what you do, but there's a lot of satisfaction and pleasure in seeing these little people blossom into something they wouldn't have been without you :)

  51. and that's what counts. Sometimes what you earn isn't just money. And when it is? It's probably time for a career change.

  52. It is rewarding beyond the money, isn't it? I love that you have such creative solutions! I teach software classes where its really easy for my adults to doze off, get glazed eyes, or stay glued to their smart phone. So I love it when I come across an analogy or anecdote that gets them engaged. But I'm sure its a lot more fulfilling engaging the kids. Keep up the great work!

  53. What a cool teacher you are! You are doing something important and making an impact on lives! p.s. What a pretty school!

  54. I love your "pants trick" for division! Perhaps I should try that ;-) I'm also really lucky with my job. My principal trusts me completely, which is awesome, and whenever I go to her with an idea/issue/suggestion she always has an open mind. I'm scared for when I have to leave one day because I doubt I'll get a better position than I have now!

  55. Theresa, it might just take a special person like you to hang in there.

    I burned out quickly teaching my type of classroom (emotionally and behaviorally challenged--they call it something different in every state), but there were others i really admired who had been teaching for years.

    In my defense, I have now finally found my creative calling. But I'll bet those kids are glad you're there day in and day out. I still think about my kids from three years ago (when I left) and they have definitely left a permanent footprint on my heart!


  56. @ Nas, I hope you're right. Right now, I just hope they're learning.

    @ Romance Reader, I wish I did too.

    @ Missed Periods, thank you. As a child, I learned it wasn't enough to tell the information. I'd sit there lost in math because there was only one way of presenting the material. I'm glad there are more options now.

    @ LR, I was too! I struggled in math. They never explained the concepts behind the formulas. I think I also faded during many science lessons.

    @ Sarah, thank you. What a nice comment. I try.

    @ Coleen, thanks!

    @ LTM, thank you. It's not easy being an assistant, but I focus what I can do with the job.

    @ Cleemckenzie, some material compensation for all of this work would be lovely. Thanks for hoping on my behalf!

    @ Shannon, thank you. I'm sure you're a fabulous teacher. Your love of books shines through on your blog.

    @ Susan, if I can make them laugh and learn, I've done my job.

    @ LynNerdKelley, thank you. I appreciate it.

    @ Lynda, it's when they laugh at my but don't learn anything that I've done a bad job!

  57. @ Sharon, administration wants us floating so it's not clear whom we're supposed to work with. I am lucky because the classroom teacher honors that. Not all of them do.

    @ Michael, thanks for visiting me from the future. I can't believe you called those parents ingrates! The funny thing is, for Christmas none of the kids I technically work with in the class gave me gifts. Many of the other kids did.

    @ Carol, third back door is a charm, right? (In all fairness, the first door did offer me a job, but my daughter was still little and I didn't want to work full time yet). Thanks for your nice words.

    @ Joanne, you're sweet. It's definitely nice to be liked.

    @ Alleged Author, thank you. I definitely enjoy this job more than I would have believed this past summer.

    @ Nicole, thank you. When I worked part-time when my kids were small, I was the only certified aide. How they interact with the kids and their comfort level when leading a group is so different from a teacher. Right now, all the aides I work with are certified teachers.

    @ Talli, this job does let me work and write, since I'm not grading papers at home or writing lesson plans. All my work (for the most part) is done at school. I'd better take advantage of this writing time while I have it.

    @ Vicki, thank you. There are times when I'm treated like less by other employees because of my job title. In those demoralizing moments, I remind myself that my circumstance has to do with a couple of choices and bad timing more than my capability.

    @ Hilary, we're probably in a similar situation. We're with two groups who often get dismissed because of their ages and we need a lot of patience to deal with them sometimes!

  58. I just can't get past the fact that people with masters degrees are working as aides in the classroom. Seems upside down somehow.

  59. No matter how hard things get in education, I cherish moments like these.

    You're doing a great job. I hope you get paid what you're worth in the future (crossing my fingers for a better economy).

  60. @ Nicki, thanks.

    Yes, time is flying!

    @ The Golden Eagle, aww, thank you!

    @ Susan, I'm glad your friend's son is getting help. By high school, I think some kids get lost.

    @ Robyn, thank you. I appreciate your support.

    As for your mojo, we're workin' on it at Write On to Build On.

    @ JL, money isn't everything, but it helps! Good thing my husband pays the majority of the bills or I couldn't even afford to work in education anymore.

    @ Denise, I agree. I'm lucky my husband helps support our family because my salary isn't cutting it.

    @ Mary@GigglesandGuns, thanks. I really like working with special education kids. I'll see where it leads.

    @ Tara, thanks for thinking of me. I never thought I'd have to fight this hard to break into this field. I'm glad I'm working in a new town--it's given me a new perspective.

  61. @ Susanna, sweet words. There are a lot of excellent teachers out there. Since I'm rarely the lead teacher, but supporting cast, I think their memory of me won't last. Hopefully the lessons do.

    @ Lora, if my husband didn't make more $, I wouldn't be able to stay in education. It's bittersweet.

    @ Margo, thanks. It's all about the connections, isn't i?

    @ Samantha, it is a pretty school. That window near the top overlooks for miles.

    @ Rachel, treasure it. There's so much politics and competition in schools.

    @ Christina, behaviorally challenging kids must create burnout. I have a friend who taught severely autistic kids. She could only do it for so long. I'm doing moderate disabilities--much easier!

    @ KarenG, like that Seinfeld episode, I'm living in a Bizarro World.

    @ Medeia, I appreciate the finger crossing--I need it!