Every month this school year BMORE will be placing a spotlight on a different PSRP (Paraprofessional & School Related Personnel, "para") to highlight their amazing work. PSRPs are leaders who make classrooms go, and are the most underappreciated educators in Baltimore City Public Schools.
We kickoff our series with a powerhouse from Medfield Heights Elementary School, Angela Whitehead. Ms. Whitehead worked as an administrative assistant at Sears service center under the 41st street bridge, ran her own daycare, and volunteered at her children's school before jumping fully into Baltimore City Public Schools. Here are some condensed excerpts from our interview on September 17th.
How did you first get into teaching?
The initial job where I volunteered was in a special ed, self contained PAL [Program for Autistic Learners] class, and I loved it. This was at Leithwalk Elementary School 27 years ago.
What drew you into special education settings rather than the general education classrooms?
I had more patience with them than my own children. I understood their disabilities. I'm more excited with them knowing that they can achieve something over an entire year, and it makes me happier, because I know what they had to overcome. Even though I love all children, I have more patience with special needs children.
How do you strike the balance between accommodating and modifying lessons while still holding high expectations for your special needs students?
I try to not just tell them what I expect, but to make sure they understand what they need to do, and go back and explain when necessary. This is what we're not going to do. This is how we're going to achieve to get to what we want to happen, and I have patience for the fact that many of their attention spans are short. So if you give me five minutes, good. Then the next time, I say give me a little more than that.
On being a para, and the deficit point of view sometimes applied to the position:
We've always been thought of as, well, you're just there to help ME out. Some teachers still do think, you're here for ME, even though we're there for the children. I've never seen myself as just being an assistant to a teacher. I'm here not just for the children in my classroom but all children...I always try to incorporate myself into the class. I'm always asking questions, what are we doing? What do you need me to help you with? What if we tried doing this? How can I not just reinforce your message? And I've always been welcomed in because my experience speaks for itself.
I've always been the type that will do, I catch on very easily. I may not have a degree that a teacher may have but I know my worth. I know what's needed. I'm always ahead.
What would your advice be for paras and teachers for having an effective and equitable partnership together?
First you have to have the mindset. If you don't have the mindset that you're here to help every children, it's not going to work. Some people think, "oh, you're just a para," NO! Your position is just as important as anyone else's, because without you the class would not survive.
How have Baltimore City Schools changed over the decades of your work?
With special ed, we're not just forced into a corner, shoved in a room in the basement anymore. We're included in classrooms because now they know that even with a variety of disabilities, they're still whole people. So why separate them when we can incorporate them? The mindset of the children has changed. When they were separated the general education setting children would see the SPED children as "retarded", and then the SPED children saw themselves that way as well.
Now they are just seen as children. The other children don't think, oh, there's something wrong with them. They're just children with some different challenges to overcome.
What sort of supports do you wish you had that you don't currently receive from your school, the city, or the union?
The way things have changed with PD. We used to go to every PD that our teachers went to. We were on the same level as them, learning the same things, partaking in the same activities. Now it's like they push paras aside and say, you don't need that. Now we're left at school, putting up bulletin boards, making sure the facility looks good, and that's it. We're just left out in the cold.
This year with Wit and Wisdom [the new literacy curriculum], I'm like OK, what is Wit and Wisdom? Why am I not allowed to go here? I tried to sign up but there wasn't room for me. Last year I signed up for a math PD, and when North Ave. found out I was a para they said no, you're not allowed to go to this. How am I supposed to pull kids and work with them on a new curriculum when I don't even understand the math yet? What do you expect me to do? How do you expect me to teach a small group effectively?
On the possibility of getting the necessary certification to be a special educator:
I've thought about it. I've had several principals tell me to go ahead and finish the coursework. But it's not about the money, it's not about certification. I love what I do. I believe I have more hands on opportunities as a para. I see more, I do more in my position. If it was about the money believe me I wouldn't be working for the city! I love what I do, I love seeing the improvement in the kids.
On the PSRP to teacher program:
They need to actually follow through on what they say they're going to do. I know paras who have taken courses and have been told oh that's not the course we want you to take, and the course they then tell you to take is the SAME COURSE! I know paras who have been trying to complete the program for 7 years! It's like you take two steps and then they put you three steps back. They want you to follow such a strict and narrow path to get your teachers certification.
Only certain courses, at certain institutions count, but there's no clear, accessible list letting you know exactly what will get approved and what won't.
What brings you back to the classroom after 27 years? Tell us your secret!
When I first started out we used to have ESY [Extended School Year] at John Ruhrah Elementary. I met this young man and he loved making cassette tapes of gospel music...Probably 8 years ago, I saw this student at Giant and he ran up to me, clearly in his thirties now and he said, "Ms. Whitehead!" and I'm looking at this grown man and he said "Ms. Whitehead you don't remember me!?" and I said no. He told me his name and I still didn't remember and he said I made you the gospel tape. Oddly enough to this day I still have this child's tape even though I don't have a device that will even play it anymore. It's just so odd that he remembers me because of the impact I had on him, and I kept his tape because of the impact he had on me.
At this same Giant I ran into a different student who came up to me and said, "Ms. Angela, well I have my driver's license now. I just want to thank you. My mom talks about you every day and she thanks you for everything. I really do have my license I passed the test!" And I'm looking at this child like oh my god, I remember him not even being able to sit down, not being able to do anything. And now thinking about him on the road, independent, driving! I'm like wow, look how far this child has come because of what myself and educators across the school system invested into him.
I love what I do. It's not a put on, it's not a facade, and it will never ever be about the money. I love helping others and I love being a team member, I really do. This is one school where I feel like I am an equal part of the team, not just an aid or an assistant.
Medfield Heights Staff on Ms. Whitehead:
-It's impossible to define what Angie's role is in the classroom and the school as a whole. From day to day she might be seen leading whole group lessons, pulling small groups, or supporting students emotionally. She does more than her daily obligations and she has spent countless hours and money making sure the students in he classroom have everything they need. Her love and care for her students goes well beyond the school day. She spends time leading an after school club and organizing trips and events for her students on weekends.
-Angela Whitehead is an exceptional para educator. She not only goes above and beyond everyday, but is also a leader in our school community and inspires her colleagues to do the same. She gives every student in our building support and love everyday regardless of circumstance. She arrives to work full of positive energy and smiles. Our school wouldn’t be the same without her and I know our students feel the same way!