My school day as a high school special education teacher is never typical and that’s what I love about it.

I also love my job because of the tremendous support system I have in place every day with my educational assistants. We are a well-oiled machine, providing instruction, collecting data, and modifying and accommodating our student’s curriculum according to their diverse needs.

The classroom down the hall is not so lucky. There is a long-term substitute teacher in there with no teaching experience, and certainly no experience in working with students with disabilities. The teacher recruited from the East Coast last year returned to the mainland because the cost of living was too high and he missed his family. The need for highly qualified special education teachers in Hawaii is great.

The Hawaii Department of Education regularly identifies special education teaching positions as one of the hardest to fill areas. In fact, Hawaii recently had more than 1,500 teacher positions unfilled.

The Hawaii Department of Education could do more to fill its teaching ranks through the development of educational assistants that it already employs. Civil Beat/2010

The amount of qualified special education teachers needed can certainly be seen at this point as a crisis. Recruiting drives are held across the country every year, but the problem doesn’t seem to be correcting itself. Can the solution to the teacher shortage crisis be found in our own backyard?

What if the answers were already in our classrooms? Qualified educational assistants currently employed in schools may be the answer. Educational assistants can be used in many ways at schools, but most often are provided to teachers in classrooms to assist with small group instruction, and supporting students with disabilities with their individualized needs.

In recent months, I’ve been reading about the 20-year plus teacher shortage the state has been facing. Some local programs and colleges may have found an innovative solution to this problem, specifically in special education.

Several programs are looking in their own communities to grow teachers to fill hard to staff positions. Leeward Community College offers an Associate in Arts in Teaching degree. This program offers a Special Education/Inclusive Education Certificate that can springboard for an educational assistant to earning an AAT degree and transferable credits to a teacher education program.

The Waianae Coast also focuses on educational assistants and paraprofessionals who are so often overlooked by supporting them to complete education related degrees and certificates through the INPEACE Kulia and Ka Lama Education Academy.

In the 13 years I have spent teaching in the DOE, I can’t even imagine overlooking the most valuable resource, my educational assistant.

I think back to my first year teaching as a fully self contained teacher at an elementary school in Waipahu. My educational assistant, Maria, not only showed me where the confidential documents I needed could be found, but also helped me differentiate my lessons to meet the needs of every student in our room: Creating a multi-sensory experience for a student who had a sensory processing disorder, suggesting I read aloud to one of my students who was dyslexic, and implementing classroom management strategies so effective instruction could occur were but a few expert interventions she taught me.

The educational assistants in my classrooms have experience. These individuals know our students and understand their  behaviors and learning needs. My support staff receives over 40 hours of training a year.

Training is provided in creating and collaborating on data collection and graphing, analyzing trend lines and response to interventions in instruction. They have completed courses in Registered Behavior Therapy, Pivotal Response Therapy, Peer Mediated Intervention and Instruction, and so much more. They are required to read and apply research based-practices for students with learning disabilities, autism, traumatic brain injuries and hearing and sight impairments.

The educational assistants in my classroom are often more valuable than I am.

Let’s not overlook the elephant in the room either, which is teacher pay. While a teacher’s salary is one of the lowest when factoring in the cost of living in Hawaii, an educational assistant’s salary can double with a teaching certificate in Hawaii.

What if we started looking at investing our efforts and funds into our educational assistants who are members of the school community, instead of losing money with the Band-aid of substitute teachers and mainland recruits who aren’t able to provide the consistency, cultural relevance and rigor our students deserve?

Why don’t we get the other adults in the classrooms, who already have a relationship with the students, community and school, certified to teach? They are working with teachers and staff who can mentor them immediately and get paid closer to what they deserve.

With the Leeward Community College AAT and Special Education/Inclusive Education Certificate, educational assistants can get the jump-start they need to move towards special education programs for teaching degrees.

Why has the DOE been looking outside the state for over 20 years when some of the best talent is already in place at school? Educational assistants don’t need a moving bonus, or an incentive to move to a certain area, they already live here. They don’t need Hawaiian-based cultural education programs to assist with local culture and customs and they aren’t shocked by the high cost of living. They aren’t homesick and miss their families because they are already with their families.

All students deserve an appropriate education. These valuable education assistants scattered throughout the the DOE should not be overlooked any longer. They can reduce the teacher shortage crisis, provide differentiated instruction to students with disabilities and earn a wage more relevant to their abilities and talents by accessing teacher certification programs designed for them.

Let’s continue to focus on investing in our educational assistants for the students of Hawaii.

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