I never set out to work with children with autism – it's just the line of work I fell into. When I began volunteering at the local YJCC, I had preconceived notions that I would be in a room full of kids who didn't like loud noises and talked like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. After fifteen minutes observing tantrums and self-injurious behavior, I realized how skewed my perception was. I went home that night and – feeling overwhelmed by the experience – I cried.
But throwing in the towel never crossed my mind and I returned the following week.
It didn't take long for me to realize the passion I had for working within the autism community. At the recommendation of a couple of supportive parents, I was able to foster my experience at the Y into a job as a paraprofessional with the Northern Valley and Montclair school districts.
Over time I adopted an approach that was firm but loving, and for the most part, it earned me the trust of my students. I always made the effort to build a rapport with every student I worked with and find something to love in the most difficult child. I learned a lot of valuable lessons from a number of my co-workers, many of whom I have developed unbreakable bonds with because of the experiences we've shared.
Armed with intuition, compassion, a wicked sense of humor, bags of Goldfish, and an extensive knowledge of all things Nick Jr., I navigated through situations that were both hilarious and heartbreaking while refining my skills as an educator and growing as an individual.
I can't imagine how I would've spent the past six years had I chosen not to go back after that initial experience.
I want you to think about these things when I tell you that we paraprofessionals and personal care assistants have no job security, tenure, or – in the case of my colleagues in Montclair – no health insurance. Because we're understaffed, the classroom teacher has to jump into the rotation and work with students, which means they don't have time to do assessments or train the rest of the staff on a particular child. On top of academics, our job also involves feeding, toileting, and other lessons in self-care. Ponder this troubling fact: Even though it's a full-time job, most of us need to work a second job to make ends meet because the pay is atrocious and severely inadequate. I was lucky to be making $22,000 a year in a district that is now reportedly in a $6 million hole.
It's impossible to succeed under these circumstances. If we as educators are being set up to fail, then our students are also being set up to fail.
This leads me to the sad fact that Montclair is considering outsourcing its paraprofessionals and substitutes – a practice that has been carried out in districts such as Englewood and Flemington-Raritan.
Somehow, the cuts always seem to find those of us in Special Education. We become the slash in the budget because we are viewed as glorified babysitters. The fact of the matter is that we have fallen victim to mismanagement. You can't tell me that we're not in the budget when the superintendent has more assistants than the classroom teachers. The reason they can't afford to pay us is because they don't want to pay us.
This past November, I left Montclair to pursue other endeavors outside of the classroom. It wasn't just because I wanted more time to write or go back for my Master's, but also because I felt I could no longer be effective in the negative climate our administration had created. Backroom politics and mismanagement of funds are common in almost any business, but when it interferes with the betterment of our children, then we have a serious problem.
So, I offer you this advice – when people tell you they work with children with autism, don't remind us it's "a really hard job" because we know it's a really hard job. In fact, it's made harder by the fact that we don't have the support of our administration. Don't tell us you'd "never have the patience for it" because we exercise patience every day and we work very hard to maintain a constructive and nurturing working environment.
If you really want to applaud us, take an interest in who the administrators are in your school district and how they're spending your tax dollars. Make sure the money is going where it should be.
If you are the parent of a child with autism, you should be fighting for us. We are your child's support system, so don't let the administration do away or replace us with people who don't have your child in their best interest. If you are the parent of a typical child, think of how budget cuts in Special Needs programs might negatively affect your son or daughter's classroom environment as well. Think not just of the paraprofessionals whose jobs are at stake but also of the parents and their children who need the extra support.
I want to believe we all have a stake in the education of our children – and that includes those with special needs – no matter who we are. We need to show our children we care about them by taking care of the paraprofessionals and personal care assistants who care for them on a daily basis. We need to fine-tune the infrastructure of our educational institutions so the people who truly want to do the job can continue to do so.