Did you ever reflect back on a job and think about how grateful you were to have it? That is exactly how I feel about my time as a Paraprofessional at Academy360 Lower School. I was hired in March of 2017 after completing a Master’s Degree in School Counseling from Montclair State University. I was having a difficult time finding employment as a counselor in a public school and was very glad to see an opening for a Paraprofessional on the Spectrum360 website.

Paraprofessional and young male student at computer
Michael and Megan work on a computer lesson.

When I first started I was not sure what to expect, so I was thankful for the new employee training provided.  I had some working knowledge of Autism, ABA, and the special needs community, but my background was mostly in counseling. The training was helpful, but it was the hands-on experience with the students that was really the most effective way to learn how best to work with them. As a school counseling intern in public school, I had had some previous experience with paraprofessionals, often referred to as “paras”.  But the role of a para in a public school is less intensive than one in a special education school. At Academy360, each para spends all day with his/her student in addition to completing the academic curriculum with the student. In Greek, the prefix “para” literally means next to or side by side.

During my last eight months at Academy360, I worked with a young man named Michael. Our work together taught me much. Not only about the rewards of this kind of work, but about the challenges as well. A typical day meant spending time on academics as I would have with any other student. However, for some subjects, I worked with Michael 1:1 rather than in a group setting. On a weekly basis, I also accompanied Michael to special services including speech therapy, occupational therapy, and reading lab.

The only real way to get to know Michael was to be patient. I let him get comfortable with me, learned what made him feel safe and what did not, and learned to understand his needs and the way he communicates. I found that he felt best in his safe space, which was often at his desk, and when he was given time to work things out on his own. Like any other student, having a bunch of people trying to help you or telling you what to do can be very overwhelming. If Michael felt overwhelmed, he could become uncomfortable and act out. Keeping him physically safe during these times was of extreme importance. This part of the job could be very challenging, especially if you were not prepared for it.  Paras must always assure their own safety, that of their students, and others around them.

Young male student and paraprofessional entering stairwell.
Megan accompanies Michael to special services.

However, overall the rewards of working with Michael were much greater than the challenges. The best part of my day was laughing with Michael over a funny scene from a video, watching him create artwork, and playing floor hockey or beach volleyball during physical education. What strikes me most is that working with Michael was much like working with any other student, regardless of diagnosis. The way he communicates, relates to others, and expresses himself may look different at first, but truthfully, we all have our own ways of expressing ourselves. To be part of his world and have him to trust me as a safe person in his life was truly an honor.

Due to illness in my pregnancy, I was not able to stay on at Academy360. It was a heartbreaking goodbye and I still think about Michael and all the students and staff at the school. If you visit and explore this school and you will find an incredible community of people who work exceptionally hard to give all of the students the best social and academic experience possible. In addition to all of the hardworking and passionate teachers, administrative, and custodial staff you will find paras who are working diligently day in and day out to know and help their students and keep them safe. Not everyone wants to or can do this work, but the ones who do know how wonderful it can be… and keep on doing it.

Megan Sweet started as 1:1 Instructional Assistant at Academy360 Lower School in March 2017. She has been working with children and their families since 2003. She earned her Masters Degree in Couple & Family Therapy at Antioch University in Seattle, Washington, and a Masters Degree in School Counseling from Montclair State University. She is a NJ certified School Counselor. She hopes to continue advocating for students with ASD, and help strengthen and foster the parent/caregiver and school relationship. In any free time that she can get, Megan loves traveling, social justice advocacy, sketch comedy, music, creating things, and spending time with her husband, Matthew, son Oskar, and their dog, Gracie.