Paraprofessionals—and apprenticeships—are the big solutions to shortages

It’s time for school districts to recognize that paraprofessionals are already working in apprenticeship programs.
Mark Toback
Mark Toback
Mark Toback is the superintendent of Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey.

In the ever-evolving education landscape, traditions are challenged by emerging needs, and sometimes, the result is a truly innovative remodeling of practices. Generations of tradespeople have been successfully trained using the apprenticeship model.

While the trades require extensive classroom learning, it is during apprenticeship when tradespeople learn to apply what they learned in the classroom. Apprenticeship models, long valued in skilled trades, are gaining recognition as an innovative approach to bridge the gap between academic knowledge and practical skills.

This article explores the benefits and challenges of integrating an apprenticeship model that accelerates the careers of existing school employees, attracts new employees, and helps address teacher shortages.

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Traditional apprenticeships require an experienced trade master who can share their field experiences with an emerging tradesperson who works with them under close supervision. The scenario in education most similar to a trades apprenticeship already exists in millions of classrooms.

Paraprofessionals, also known as teacher’s aides, instructional assistants or paraeducators, play a crucial role in supporting teachers and fostering a positive learning environment in schools. Like apprentices, paraprofessionals do not have the full responsibilities of the classroom teacher, but they work closely with experienced teachers and witness effective teachers’ professional practices.

Despite the similarities, the work of the paraprofessional was not viewed as akin to a formal apprenticeship. The reality is that most paraprofessionals continue in their work but rarely take the next step to become teachers.

It’s time for school districts to recognize that paraprofessionals are already working in apprenticeship programs. The challenge is formalizing the apprenticeship model and providing a pathway to a teaching certificate.

How to get started with apprenticeships

Paraprofessional apprenticeships involve several requirements that fall outside the capacity of typical school districts. The model is not possible without developing external partnerships that will lead paraprofessionals to the finish line with a college degree and a teaching certificate.

  1. Partner with a college of education
  2. Formal Department of Labor apprenticeship agreement
  3. State department of education support
  4. School board support
  5. Labor union support

Removing obstacles

One of the most important benefits of any paraprofessional apprenticeship program is that it removes two of the largest obstacles that many paraprofessionals would otherwise face when pursuing a college degree and teaching certificate. One primary obstacle for many seeking to return or continue their college education is the financial stress created by giving up a job to pursue education, especially when that loss of employment is coupled with tuition payments.

Because this apprenticeship model requires employment in a school system, many school systems offer tuition reimbursement and other ways of providing financial support to employees continuing their education. With an approved United States Department of Labor apprenticeship program, there are additional opportunities for funding education.

A lack of time is another problem frequently identified as an obstacle for working adults seeking to return to or continue college. A paraprofessional apprenticeship allows future teachers to continue to work and earn college credit at the same time by simply continuing with existing employment.

The apprenticeship model further reduces the total amount of time required to earn a degree and can also be designed to make classes more flexible with online learning and asynchronous classes. This is especially helpful for working adults who are trying to balance a job, home responsibilities, and college coursework.

Unsung heroes of education

Integrating apprenticeship models into the paraprofessional work experience represents a promising shift that values and supports current employees, provides a career ladder, and helps address teacher shortages. While many school districts fund para-to-teacher programs, those programs do not take full advantage of the apprenticeship model, and many are simply tuition reimbursement programs.

Typical para-to-teacher programs do not remove the obstacles to higher education facing many paraprofessionals. By embracing paraprofessionals as teachers working in an apprenticeship, we elevate the work of these critical school employees who are often the unsung heroes of our educational system.

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