updated 12/27/2004 10:42:14 PM ET 2004-12-28T03:42:14

With students huddled around her, Sandra Davis quizzed them on dates and times, a part of life that doesn’t come easily for developmentally disabled children.

And when 7-year-old Darryl Washington got his birthday right after a year of trying, using a yardstick to correctly point out Nov. 9 on the calendar, Davis shouted in joy.

“Ms. Valentine!” Davis said to fellow instructor Florence Valentine. “I hate to disturb your group, but Darryl found his birthday. He didn’t say it, but he found it!”

Davis is among roughly 1 million people in the nation’s classrooms who strive for such breakthrough moments with students. She’s also not a teacher.

She is a teacher’s aide, a job that’s become such a major part of instruction that Congress is ordering aides to prove their quality and experience — just as teachers must.

Since the 1950s, when aides were recruited for clerical work, their role has become a hybrid of teaching and lesson planning along with supervising the playground and cafeteria.

Often assigned to help students with disabilities and limited-English learners, aides also have quietly gained a big presence in mainstream classes. They work with students individually and in groups, reinforce the teacher’s lessons and help keep class in order.

Three decades ago, schools used to have 35 teachers for every teacher’s aide. The ratio is now lower than 5-to-1, as the number of full-time and part-time aides has almost doubled.

Yet aides still lack clear identity, right down to the various names they go by, including paraprofessional and paraeducator. Walk into some classrooms and it is not obvious which instructor is in the lead role and which one likely does not have a teaching degree.

“There’s little understanding about the level of intricacy of the work that they do,” Tish Olshefski, a paraprofessional expert at the American Federation of Teachers, said about instructional aides. “There is this misconception that all they do is shuffle papers.”

Not at Rosemont Elementary in Baltimore, where Davis works with special needs students.

Earlier this month, Davis led a lesson for most of the students about understanding the calendar. That allowed the teacher, Valentine, to pull aside two students who weren’t as advanced at word recognition and needed to work with a soft calendar they could touch.

“In my classroom, I decided there’s going to be no line between us, because ultimately, we’re all teachers,” Valentine said. “The big line is that the buck stops with me. I have to answer to following the state curriculum. But that’s it.”

That’s the attitude in the school, where aides are expected to understand the curriculum, know teaching techniques and participate in faculty training, said principal Sandra Ashe.

“They make a difference in the classroom,” she said. “And besides, they’re around the teacher all the time. The difference is, they may not be degreed or have had the professional experience yet.”

In some cases nationwide, the blurring of the teaching line has led to trouble, with untrained aides put in charge of classes. A federal study in 2000 found more than four in 10 aides in the neediest schools spent at least half their time running classes without a teacher. Some schools bank on aides as substitute teachers, which is not their intended role.

“People expect fully qualified teachers to be running their children’s classes,” said Linda Hodge, president of the National PTA. “The expectations of aides is that they’ll be exactly that — an aide. It helps the whole class, and they can break activities into small groups. But we never expect a teacher’s aide to be teaching a class.”

Congress sought to draw a firm line under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Under the law, paraprofessionals are to play supporting roles, remain in proximity to teachers and refrain from introducing new content to students, the Education Department has told schools.

The law also set higher qualifications for instructional aides, many of whom never got a college degree and typically get paid $15,000 to $24,000 for full-time work.

To keep their jobs, aides in schools that receive federal poverty aid have until January 2006 to compile at least two years of college study or earn at least an associate’s degree.

Their other option is to pass a test proving their knowledge of reading, writing and math and their ability to help teach those topics. Newly hired aides must have such qualifications before they can get the jobs.

Teachers unions say the law set those standards without requiring states or districts to help aides get qualified, and that schools will soon be scrambling to comply. An AFT study this year warned that more than half the states are not on pace to meet the 2006 deadline.

Davis, the Baltimore aide, has passed a test that will allow her to stay in class. And in her 15th year in her school system, she has no interest in pursuing a teaching degree.

“When teachers go home, they have to take it home — grading papers, doing report cards, setting up tests,” she said. “When I go home, I can leave it here. I’m a paraprofessional, and I’m proud to be one. I just wish we could get the respect that teachers get.”

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