The Incompetent Paraprofessional Who Drove Me Crazy

Stressed Teacher

As a special educator, often we are lucky enough to have the assistance of support staff in our room. These folks help with behavior issues, offer additional one-on-one support to students, and help be the eyes and ears necessary to write thorough IEP’s (Individualized Education Plans).

Having the ability to hire and vet out potential candidates for this incredibly important position is key to providing the students with maximum opportunity for success. When you rely on other people to pick the right candidate, you could be setting yourself up for more work in the long run. Sometimes it can even feel like you’re adding another student to your class.

I didn’t realize how important my participation in selecting the right support person was until a couple years into my teaching career. I knew some people weren’t “fit” to work in a school setting, I just thought HR departments could determine who those people were and not allow them in. Turns out, that isn’t always the case.

I have worked with many teaching assistants (paraprofessionals) over the years, most of whom were incredible! I’ve been involved in the hiring decision BECAUSE I learned the importance of this the hard way.

The particular teaching assistant that caused me to “force participate” in subsequent hiring decisions was hired solely by the human resource department. (I say “force participate” because the HR department didn’t seem excited to add additional people to the hiring process.) However, if I would have had the opportunity to sit in on this assistants interview, I wouldn’t have hired him. He ended up getting fired; here is the short version of what happened.

At the beginning of the school year, the entire support staff received a week of specialized training. They were taught how to communicate and support students with special needs. This training was intense; it included everything from positive reinforcements, testing, behavior support techniques and even proper ways to restrain a student who was “out of control.” For most of the training, the teachers would be in a different area getting the paperwork finished and setting up the classroom. However, the teachers would sit in on the training to get extra information and to spend time with their new staff members. Some teachers would even volunteer to present particular lessons they were passionate about.

The first red flag was during my presentation on testing. I was speaking with the staff members about important information related to testing and the steps to take to get proper results. As I was looking around, I noticed that my assistant had fallen asleep! This was not good, especially since he would be working in my room, and I was in charge of all of the test results and data. I woke him up, addressed how important it was to pay attention and continued with my presentation. A few minutes later, I had to stop my presentation once again and ask him to stop playing on his cell phone and pay attention. At this point, I was getting frustrated and thought that he might be a challenge for me. I knew training was boring for some people and decided to give him an opportunity to turn his behaviors around. Huge mistake, it went downhill from there.

After the training was over, I sat down with him, addressed my concerns and he understood the expectations. I went over the employee handbook and rules of my classroom. He seemed to be excited to work with me. I was a bit nervous, but it was too late to turn back. The school year was about to start.

The following day, the students arrived, and it was great. I had them working on “getting to know you” worksheets, and they seemed to enjoy learning about each other. As they were working independently, I sat down at my desk to take a phone call. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my assistant talking to one of my female students, and she had a fearful look on her face. As I hung up the phone, I heard my assistant say, “Girl, you know how it is in the hood, we do things gangsta style. You from the ghetto right? I just know you from the ghetto, I can tell.” I immediately jumped up from my chair and pulled him aside. I was beside myself. I talked to him about how to speak appropriately to junior high students and how he was extremely inappropriate with his words. I told him that our conversation was a verbal warning and next time he would be written up. He apologized and said it would never happen again.

The following day, he arrived in great spirits and was determined to work hard and help every student. I was thrilled; maybe he was going to change. As soon as the students arrived, an argument broke out. Two students started yelling at each other; one student picked up his desk and threw it across the room, and the other started running toward him.   I jumped up from my chair to intervene. As soon as I stepped between the students, I was pushed to the ground. Luckily, the fight had stopped. I stood up, looked at my assistant and he was just sitting there doing absolutely nothing. He didn’t even move. I heard him say, “Damn that was crazy sh*t. It was like a fight on the street corner, good thing the teach took care of ya’ll.”

My face was red, my blood boiling, and my jaw literally on the ground… but no words could come out. I was speechless! What do you say to that? He was acting just like one of my students, except worse! He was not a “fit” for my classroom. I needed him to stand up and help me settle the disagreement and he just sat there and watched. Once the class was back to normal, I asked him to sit down and talk with me. I explained that he was not going to work out for two reasons. First, he just sat there and didn’t do a thing to support the students or me during the argument and second his language was inappropriate. I walked him down to the principal’s office, wrote him up and sent him home for the day.

I was adamant to get him out of my classroom. I explained in detail about my concerns to the school principal, and he understood but wanted me to start documenting all of his inappropriate behaviors. He said that he needed the proper documentation before we could let him go. This was upsetting to me; there was no way I wanted him in my room, and I had no time to document everything. Long story short, I did end up documenting EVERYTHING, and he finally was “let go” a month later. It took hours of my personal time to write up the proper information, but he was gone.

From then on, I sat in on every interview until I felt confident about the person. I made sure every staff member was capable and appropriate to work in a classroom setting. HR didn’t like it much, however over the subsequent years we passed on several candidates they felt we should hire (people I wouldn’t want teaching my own children)! The pay isn’t always the best for these positions, so finding the perfect candidate isn’t easy. However, they ARE out there! I’ve worked with some of the most amazing paraprofessionals over the years, most of which went on to become teachers.

Bottom line, all teachers should decide on who will be the best “fit” in their classroom environment, not and HR person who never steps foot in the classroom. You know your students, your classroom environment and the particular skills necessary to ensure each child receives the best opportunity to reach their academic excellence!


-Suzie Dalien, M.Ed.

As an educator, do you have the opportunity to sit in on interviews?

As a parent, have you met unprofessional support staff? Or heard stories from your child?

Please share in the comment section below.

Picture of Luke Dalien

Luke Dalien

Author Luke Dalien has spent his life dedicated to helping others break the chains of normal so that they may live fulfilled lives. When he’s not busy creating books aimed to bring a smile to the faces of children, he and his amazing wife, Suzie, work tirelessly on their joint passion; helping children with special needs reach their excellence. Together, they founded an online tutoring and resource company, Poetry, which had been a personal endeavor of Luke’s for the better part of two decades, was mainly reserved for his beautiful wife, and their two amazing children, Lily and Alex. With several “subtle nudges” from his family, Luke finally decided to share his true passion in creativity with the world through his first children’s book series, “The Adventures Of The Silly Little Beaver."


  1. I have substituted in special education classes. These are special children. Each one has their own talents. This teacher was unfortunate to have to go thru a bad experience. There is always the good the bad and the ugly in teachers as well as para professionals. In the long run you are hurting the students. So if you do not want to work with special education students at all may be teaching is not your profession. Get another degree because these special education students do go into normal school class settings so prepare yourself for extra work. In the long run, that little extra nice gesture will touch a child in a positive way

  2. I really enjoyed your article. Having been a special education teacher for over 5 years now within a self-contained/cross categorical setting I always seem to have the teaching assistants who don’t really share my teaching philosophy. As you mentioned…

    “Bottom line, all teachers should decide on who will be the best “fit” in their classroom environment, not and HR person who never steps foot in the classroom. You know your students, your classroom environment and the particular skills necessary to ensure each child receives the best opportunity to reach their academic excellence!”

    I totally agree with this! I wish my administration would have let me choose my working partner. It would have made all the difference in past school years.

    Thanks for the article!

  3. My son ia in the second grade and has some behavioral issues. His Para professional told him that ‘ She likes naked baby butts’ I told the school about this . The school still has her working with him against my wishes. What can I do?

  4. As a new paraeducator, I had to handle behavioral issues with general education and special needs students in the classroom. I provided discipline in the classroom when the general education teacher was elsewhere in the classroom. Sometimes, I would respond in situations where the child was distracting the teacher. In my case, my contract wasn’t extended beyond probation. I thought I was treated unfairly in a work environment that I thought was toxic from the beginning ( angry special education teachers, disgruntled and frustrated general education teachers, a weary principal, and teachers ready to retire )

    Don’t be too critical of your new paraeducators. If there are things they do well, give them a chance to succeed. If there are areas of needed improvement, don’t wait until the last minute to inform your paraeducator and don’t assume they are psychic. This was my area of great frustration. Unfortunately, a certain special education teacher and administrator didn’t see things from my perspective.

    It appears that your former paraeducator was a really bad hire. I myself had to maintain composure when a general education teacher lost control of his classroom. He is a good teacher, but he let his emotions get the best of him in this particular situation. I had to monitor his students when he left the classroom. When he returned, I had to go to the administrative offices to assist the teacher in rectifying the matter. As usual, I was ignored by the principal and no one asked me what occurred inside the classroom.

    I was accepted to a teacher certification program, but this experience really dampened any passion I have to be a teacher.

  5. I hear you. My past assistant was constantly on her phone, unengaged with the class, and actually told some of my parents that she was afraid of certain students! Her mere presence ended up triggering certain behaviors in students, they sensed the dislike or fear and disconnect. It was ridiculous but I was paired with her at the beginning of the year and attributed it to lack of training so tried to give her a chance. Fortunately admin came in a took care of it. It can be incredibly frustrating to get someone who you are not compatible with or who does not act professionally.

  6. I am a certified SPED teacher who is just getting back into the field-I took a para professional job this year until my son graduates-it has been the worst experience of my life-the head teacher has treated me like a complete idiot,bitten my head off and treated me like I was not part of the room-negated every success I had with kids that I worked with-I finally went and documented it with the union.three days later I got the worst evaluation I have ever had based on lies etc.she had no documentation to back up any of it-I wrote a rebuttal and during the meeting stood up for myself-well,I am getting FIRED because the district said that because the first year is a probation year,the union has no standing for me even though I pay dues-so 3/4’s of the way through the year I am fired-no regards for the success that I have had … the SPED administrator kept saying “you are JUST an ed tech “!I supervised ed techs when I was a head teacher and always treated them professionally=the only good thing is that I will look for a sub job until the end of the year and will get a good reference-I have never met a more unprofessional teacher in my life and an administration that disregarded what I had to say…

  7. But what about the amazing aide who can’t get out her teacher? It isn’t always one sided….. I would love the opportunity to speak with you and share MY story….

  8. That sounds like a nightmare! However…..I want to point out that Paraprofessionals are NOT, “Teacher’s Assistants”. We are there for the specific purpose of providing support to the designated child with the IEP/LD. I am confused, as you started out referring to this person as a Paraprofessional, and then continually called him “your assistant”? Para’s are not a ‘teacher’s helper’. We are not there to complete menial tasks for the teachers. We are there to support the learning of the specific child. In fact, funding for our positions does NOT allow spending our time helping non-IEP students or acting as a teacher’s aide. (Although, I, including most para’s I know, am happy to help other students IF we are able, and/or assisting the classroom teacher IF we are able. It is extremely offensive to be treated as if we are retired grannies there to make copies and staple packets. Many para’s are highly qualified, have bachelor’s degrees and have CHOSEN this profession. It sounds like your HR department needs to improve their screening tools, and the teachers need a little brush up on the difference between a ‘teacher’s assistant’ and a ‘paraprofessional’.

  9. You’re lucky you were able to get a new paraprofessional so quickly. The paraprofessionals in my district have a union and I’ve had to deal with my 2 paraprofessional’s inappropriate conduct and behaviors for the last 4 years. (Since I was hired as a teacher 4 years ago). I have 4 years of documentation and now finally administration is going to help me. Even my union couldn’t help me. All they say is document and work with administration. It’s been so bad for me that every year I have looked for a new teaching position. No other district wants to pay me what I get paid and unfortunately my district has me because of my paycheck at this point. Transferring to another classroom is difficult because I’m lower on the seniority list and teachers who have more seniority than me get to move classrooms and schools.

    Every day I go into work and make the most of it but it’s old. It’s so important to have a good team in your classroom and stupid politics interferes with that, at least in my school district. Bad staff eventually gets moved and becomes some other teacher’s nightmare.

  10. I’ve been a paraprofessional for many years, and I’ve worked with some great teachers and some pretty bad ones.
    The worst one I can think of is the one who was always on Facebook and leaving me to take care of a class full of students, and two were severely mentally and physically challenged.
    She would stalk her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s profile and ask me, “Do you think she’s more attractive than me?”
    She’d call her buddies from the front office to ask them the same thing.
    On Tuesdays we would take the students by city bus to a pizza place, where the students job was to fold pizza boxes for a couple of hours, and they would get paid in pizza and soda, then they would play games in the arcade.
    Most of the time, the teacher was chatting away with the restaurant manager instead of supervising or at least having her eyes on the students we were both in charge of.
    Afterward she’d say, “I’m SUCH a big flirt, did you notice?”
    My standard answer was, “No, I was too busy making sure that (name) and (name) weren’t hitting each other, and (name) wasn’t trying to run out the door.”
    It was awful working with her.
    I could write volumes more about her and others, but I see I’ve written a lot already.

  11. I’m excited to jump into the paraprofessional role. I really do want to be one of the parapros that grow into the teaching role. Hopefully, I can be one of the amazing parapros this teacher talked about.

  12. I work in a class that has about 11 severely autistic kids, some who need lifted to use the restroom, and some who just need assistance with everything else. When I started working as a para, I loved it. I have never worked with so many autistic children in a class. I feel like I am not cut out for that type of class, but I’m trying really hard to get to know these kids and understand their behaviors and what works for them in order to learn. Sometimes, I’ll forget to take a student down to the nurse at an exact time, say 5 or 10 minutes. I feel terrible about this, but when this does happen, I’m either helping another child with a melt down or taking a child to potty. Either way, I feel like I’m not what the teacher wants. Then I go home and dwell on this and feel like I’ve let everyone down. I see other paras or a teacher and a close worker that they’ve worked with for a while and look over at me and talk about me behind my back. What can I do?

    • As a SPED para I feel the same way! My teacher is so controlling(I know I am under her supervision). I have always prided myself on taking her criticism and changing to meet expectation. I am very adaptable to what my teacher expects. However, she is very inconsistent and condescending. I have bent over backwards sideways and every which way she has told me to bend. At the end of the day, I have never been able to meet her constantly changing expectations. I go home and I am so depressed wondering why she lectures me about everything I have done wrong when she told me to do it that way. I’ve been a para at the same school for seven years and have worked with four different SPED teachers. With each teacher I’ve adapted and met their needs and wants. This teacher is always telling me I am boring and unenthusiastic, I am not doing this right or that right. I can tell she doesn’t really care for me. However, I know now why she had to train so many paras at her old school. After three years of working with this teacher it pains me that I may have to leave the students I care for and a job I dearly love.

  13. I have subbed w sped 4 yrs and worked as an assistant (called different names like IA, PHTA, PHA, and Para Educator in different parts of our state), 9 yrs. , in several schools, in several different cities and towns. I have seen both sides. Mostly I am bothered how some places the technical accommodations are over kill and under utilized, or tech is not used to help the very distracted.
    Across the board emotional behavioral disorders are not addressed and students don’t get early interventions so those who are familiar with mental illness see it getting worse yet SpED teachers don’t recognize the signs to recommend these student get behavioral health evaluations and services, so vital.
    SpED can be a lot of things.. serving a wide variety of disabilities. I hate to see teachers waste time debating, preaching morals, fussing or dealing with students who act out when a different behavior intervention / action needs to be revised yet they cannot see that. I as a para have my hands tied because what i hear from the powers that be is, “It is her class”….so every day I go through it. Honestly I see most case managers have no clue what is going on in the class with their kids and the Sped teachers do not reassess their BIP plans when they do not work nor implement a BIP when it is needed. AND they neglect imput from paras .
    hell watching a teacher make everyones’ day hell with her unbridled mouth, lack of structure, and incompetence. And then she wonders why the student is doing so poorly.
    My highest frustrations begin with Dept Chairman who do not listen to staff, push their agendas and are not connecting with staff to know day to day happenings with students teachers and staff. Go into the classrooms at least once a week to see what is going on. Talk to staff they know these kids. My frustrations end with a SpED teachers who don’t seem to have the time to work with a para to communicate how to work with a specific issue to make the students day better. If a para is a pain call them out. But then show them how it is done. get them to online training or professional dev. conferences. WE ALL NEED EXPERIENCE TO GROW TO SERVE

  14. Hello, I have been a paraprofessional for 2 months for teen. My training was only ONE DAY and I was supposed to be working with kids. My relationship with the student started off good now he’s becoming aggressive towards me and teachers? What have I done?

  15. As a substitute Paraeducator, I have seen people like this, people that do not need to be around students. Yet, they have permanent positions and can not get fired since they are protected by the union. I am sitting here wondering how they got hired?? I have been subbing for a little over 3 years and can not land a permanent spot. I’ve had good annual reviews, I am educated, and I loved working with the Special Education Department so much that I decided to get my teaching degree. I am confused on how things work.

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