Schools should look within to recruit teachers

Paraprofessionals, aides offer great potential

THE AUDITORIUM at Haverhill High School was full of positive energy, as over 50 paraprofessionals and instructional aides heard about an opportunity to earn a master’s degree and a Massachusetts teaching license. The gathering was good news for many paraprofessionals, who while they might hold a bachelor’s degree, may not yet be eligible for a teaching license. It was also good news for school districts, as paraprofessionals represent one of the great untapped resources to meet their needs.

The past few years have been hard ones for school districts recruiting teachers. Once a post to an education hiring website yielded a solid pool of applicants. Now positions, particularly in hard-to-staff, overtaxed areas such as moderate disabilities and teaching English learners, can linger unfilled.

As a result of the staffing emergency brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of Massachusetts created an emergency license program to temporarily make it easier to hire unlicensed teachers. This has helped ease some of these staffing problems and has brought a more diverse pool of career changers into the field of education. However, for many districts, this solution has not been enough, particularly in terms of keeping employees for the long term.

Many K-12 districts are discovering that the answer to at least some of their hiring issues can be found within their buildings. While licensed teachers are the majority of the workforce in Massachusetts public schools, a variety of instructional aides and paraprofessionals work, often alongside a teacher, to meet the needs of students 1:1 or in small groups.

These instructional aides and paraprofessionals are also more likely than new hires to live in the community that the school serves, and more likely to stay in their role as a result.

Instructional aides and paraprofessionals tend to be more diverse than classroom teachers, and often match more closely to the background of their students. They often live in the district or are parents of students at the school.

Many districts have wisely tried to recruit local residents and parents to this role, and this has yielded many talented employees for our schools. These individuals are also used to working with students one on one and in small groups. They are familiar with classroom routines and often have developed behavior management strategies that first-year teachers lack.

Investing in those who are already committed to our school systems and moving more paraprofessionals toward becoming fully licensed teachers is the logical next step in Massachusetts. However, this group faces barriers on the way to licensure. The MTEL (Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure) exam continues to be a barrier, particularly for individuals for whom English was not their first language.

Finding time and resources for required coursework has been a problem as well, particularly since many paraprofessionals have families and other responsibilities that make it difficult to add schooling to the mix.

To address these barriers, the way that we train teachers needs to change. While once we focused recruiting on students leaving college or a few years out, we have broadened our teacher education programming to allow more paraprofessionals to take advantage of our master’s degree and licensure programs. This has included changing our sequence of classes, spreading out coursework over an extra year, building cohort programs to provide support, and providing enhanced MTEL preparation support. We have built our field experience policies to allow paraprofessionals to complete their programs within their building or job so as not to disrupt their current income.

District partners, like Haverhill, have stepped up to provide financial support for their paraprofessionals as well, allowing them to continue to work while taking classes and doing their final field experience. There are costs involved, but this is a long-term investment for districts, and in two years they will have grown their teaching workforce and have committed employees who can see that their district has made a real investment in their career.

For paraprofessionals, the move to a teaching role can be life-changing. The new role provides more autonomy and professional status and provides for higher pay and benefits. In the field of education, we promise students that if they work hard and meet high standards, they can advance in their careers and make a contribution to their community. With paraprofessionals, Massachusetts has an opportunity to make these promises a reality. In turn, these individuals serve as wonderful role models for the next generation of students and educators.

Margaret Marotta is the superintendent of Haverhill Public Schools.  Deborah Margolis is the dean and Russell Olwell is an associate dean at the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College in North Andover.