How to Become a Paraprofessional, Teacher’s Aide, or Teacher’s Assistant
Reviewed by Theresa Corder, Paraprofessional
The unsung heroes in the K-12 classroom are the paraprofessionals (also called paraeducators or paras), teachers’ aides, and teaching assistants. Paraprofessionals work alongside teachers, providing invaluable support to both the educators and the students. In fact, the term “para” means “alongside,” and the educational field mirrors the legal and medical fields as all these professions work best when practitioners and supporting professionals work alongside one another.
If you would like to help with the education and growth of young learners but do not want to become a licensed teacher, or want to try out the role before committing to teaching, a position as a paraprofessional, aide, or assistant may be right for you.
Paraprofessional, Teacher’s Aide, and Teaching Assistant Job Overview
Paraprofessionals, aides, and assistants generally work alongside licensed teachers to help educate students, but they may not be the lesson designers or primary instructors.
It is important to note that individuals who hold any of these positions aren’t legally teachers. CareerOneStop, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, states that teacher assistants—a term it uses to encompass paras, aides, and assistants, along with other similar titles— “[p]erform duties that are instructional in nature or deliver direct services to students or parents…[while] a teacher has ultimate responsibility for the design and implementation of educational programs and services.”
So, for example, while paras may be able to fulfill some requirements on students’ Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs), their time may not count toward the required hours for fully qualified teacher-specific services that these plans involve.
Depending on the specific job title and even individual school of employment, a person who provides support to the licensed classroom teacher and their students may perform tasks including:
The average day for paraprofessionals, assistants, and aides, excepting those in clerical or library functions, may include working in classrooms created explicitly for their charges—English for speakers of other languages, gifted and talented, or special needs students, for instance—and/or rotating through other classes with their students as they attend general education and elective courses.
Different classroom teachers will have different expectations for these professionals. While some consider paras, aides, and assistants to be full partners in the classroom, taking their advice, trusting their expertise, and allowing them to monitor the behavior of students who are not in their charge, other teachers want them to work strictly with their charges and interact with the other students and the teacher themselves as infrequently as possible. As a result, adaptability is a crucial trait for those in these fields.
What Are the Differences Between a Para, Aide, and Assistant?
The titles of paraprofessionals, teaching aides and teaching assistants are often used interchangeably, including in national salary and occupation growth reporting. However, there are significant legal distinctions to keep in mind. These differences, as well as the steps necessary to become a paraprofessional or a teaching aide, are outlined below.
Paraprofessionals and Paraeducators
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, paraprofessionals must meet specific qualifications. Specifically, ESSA requires paraprofessionals serving in an instructional capacity in schools receiving federal Title I funding to:
Note that the requirements vary by district. For instance, some districts may require an associate degree, while others may not accept the academic assessment criterion.
For paraeducators working in schools that do not receive Title I funding, a minimum of a high school diploma or GED is required, as well as a demonstration of skills in assisting in classroom instruction through a state or local test. The ParaPro Assessment is a national exam offered by the Educational Testing Service that many states use to fulfill this requirement.
Though paraprofessionals are a vital part of the education of students, they may not serve as substitutes in the absence of primary teachers or provide full instruction without teachers’ direct supervision. This can be a bit confusing as paras do, of course, instruct students frequently. The key here is that a teacher must have created the overarching lessons and be present and available to help the paraprofessional when working with the students in their charge.
There is one exception to the rule regarding paraprofessionals’ ability to lead a class without a licensed teacher: in some places, paras can work towards becoming a “lead teacher assistant.” Lead teacher assistants may fill in for classroom teachers for up to 10 non-consecutive days during a school year. Not all districts or schools offer this position, so be sure to ask about opportunities for advancement if that interests you.
Teaching Aides and Assistants
Although some states and districts may use the terms “teaching aide” and “teaching assistant” interchangeably with paraprofessionals, teaching aides who do not demonstrate the requirements of a paraprofessional may not have their hours count toward IEP-required teacher service hours. They also may not provide full-class instruction or serve as substitute teachers in the absence of licensed teachers, although some states or employers may define these roles differently. However, they can work one-on-one or in small groups, helping students with assignments, and assist with accommodations that are not IEP-related, such as reading aloud to English language learners or helping students who are not working up to grade level.
“Teaching assistant” is a title most commonly used in college classrooms—generally, the role is filled by a master’s candidate or higher who is helping out a professor, not someone working in a K-12 class. That said, some school districts and early childhood education facilities employ this job title instead of “aide,” and you will also find high school volunteers working with younger grades under this title.
Some school districts also give the titles of “aide” and “assistant” to those who perform strictly clerical work or work in the school library. Administrative work may include grading tests with straightforward answers (e.g., true/false) or making copies, while school library aides and assistants will shelve books and help students check them out, give recommendations, and perform other noninstructional library duties.
Although each state and school district will have its own requirements for teacher assistant positions, nearly all will require a minimum of a high school diploma. Some states, like Arkansas, require assistants to be certified, while others do not.
If you’re seeking a position as a paraprofessional, aide, or assistant, be sure to ask your interviewer precisely what the position entails—since the terms are often used interchangeably, you may be on different pages about the job requirements.
Career Outlook and Salary for Paras, Aides, and Assistants
The job outlook for teaching aides and paraprofessionals (the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses the terms interchangeably) is growing about as fast as average as all other professions, with an expected growth rate of 4% projected from 2018 to 2028 (BLS, 2019). According to the BLS, federal and state funding, as well as increasing student enrollment, will contribute to this steady growth.
Nationwide, the average paraprofessional pay is $12.56 per hour. As paras, aides, and assistants work during school hours and are not paid for school breaks, estimated median annual pay across the United States is around $19,000. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a much higher estimated average annual pay, but that higher estimate assumes 52 weeks of work; paras, assistants, and aides generally work for around 38 weeks.)
Resources for Current and Future Paras, Aides, and Assistants
Whether you are already working as a paraprofessional or teaching aide, or you are considering the field as a career, you may want to utilize available professional resources to help you along the way.
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