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Leah Wood was tired of Burger King “playing” with the idea of making her a manager, so when an acquaintance told her the Philadelphia school district was hiring paraprofessionals, she thought she’d give it a try — even though she “absolutely hated” school growing up.
Now, she’s nearing 16 years in the classroom and is in love with her job as a special education assistant at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences in North Philadelphia. She’s also the president of Para Power Philly, an organizing group that provides resources and support to paraeducators in the city.
“I hope that people understand that paraprofessionals are essential. We are not second-class citizens,” Wood said. “We are really important and we love our jobs.”
Over the years, Wood has shepherded 275 “babies,” as she calls her students, through middle school. She’s helped them tackle difficult reading assignments, craft intricate dioramas, grapple with bullying, and find a safe space to express themselves.
Each one of those 275 students, she said, has individual needs that Wood had to learn to navigate with respect and compassion.
“Just like how Burger King has people that were your regulars, I have kids that are my regulars,” Wood said. “The one thing that stuck with me from Burger King was you always listen, apologize, satisfy and thank … it shows a level of respect when you’re talking to people, because you’re giving them a chance to express what the problem is.”
Wood talked to Chalkbeat about shifting the conversation about paraprofessionals, pushing students to achieve what they thought was impossible, and the self-care power of knitting.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your favorite part about your job? What is something that’s kept you doing it for as long as you have?
It’s when people think that they can’t do something and I’m able to break it down and they realize that they can do it, and that they know the answer. That is my favorite moment. When they’re like ‘Ms. Leah, I can do it!’ I say, ‘There you go. I told you you could do that.’ When they think they can’t get it and they’re fussing and fighting you and it just clicks in their head. That’s the best.
This year the school district is reading “Heroes, Gods and Monsters” for the sixth, seventh and eighth graders, but we don’t get those books because they say our kids are so far behind they need corrective reading and math. I had to go find the books and I had my students read the books together or read a couple stories out of the book. We also just finished reading “Percy Jackson.” I don’t play with my kids. I don’t believe in ‘I can’t.’
What do you think is a common misconception about paraeducators? What’s something that you wish people knew?
A lot of times people think we’re glorified babysitters and that we don’t really work and that we’re not educated, that we don’t try and just sit around and do nothing and be on our phones all day.
We work hard to educate these kids. We are assisting our teachers. We’re not just sitting there playing with blocks. We’re trying to get them to be able to go out into the world, to be able to read, write, and count. Some of us actually lift kids, especially students with multiple disabilities, we’re lifting these children who are like 100-150 pounds.
What does it mean to you to be a paraprofessional?
I call it teaching without the restrictions. I don’t have those restrictions of standards or a need to follow certain pacing. ‘What if this is on the PSSA [exam]?’ I don’t have to worry about that. For example, with my reading group, I noticed that our kids did not get science and social studies. They’re already doing corrective reading, so I thought ‘I can do something with them.’ I went out and I found a program at the school district about climate change. So we learned about climate change. It ties in because it’s science, yes, but you’ve got to read to do it.
The students love it because it’s different. A lot of them don’t like the corrective reading. They say the stories sound stupid, they’re crazy, they’re boring, they’re out of touch. And that’s understandable. So I’ll go find something that relates to their life then.
What’s your favorite way to get students engaged in their learning?
Combining reading and art, because I’m kind of crafty. No matter what we’re reading, there’s a piece of drawing or collage involved — if I could teach them to sew I would. We’ll do a diorama of stories we read and then ask them to tell me the summary of the story. We’re learning about the water cycle so I say ‘create me a video or write me a song about the water cycle.’ I’m putting it all together.
What’s something happening in the North Philly community that affects what goes on inside your classroom?
Right now, it’s the bullying. Our kids are not bullied a lot, but some of them are bullied on the bus. They’re learning about bullying from other students, and they sometimes try to bully each other, which is wild because there’s not that many kids in the classroom.
But they’re also recognizing that our classroom is a safe space. There are many times that kids that have been bullied in a general education classroom will come to our room and they’ll just sit because they know they won’t get picked on. They know they’re always welcome.
I think it’s gotten worse since the pandemic. These children right now are just like, ‘I don’t care. Since I’m hurt. Everybody’s going to hurt.’ It’s not all of them, but it’s enough of them where it’s having an impact like a ripple. I just wonder where we went wrong as adults. What did we miss?
Since the pandemic, you’ve got a lot of trauma. You’ve seen people dying, you’ve got family members that died. You’re like ‘there’s no food or money.’ So you don’t care.
How do you grapple with that? How do you teach students to care?
It all starts small, with them as individuals. I say ‘if you don’t like yourself, you’re not gonna like anybody else.’
You spend your days trying to help others, how do you take care of yourself when you’re not at work?
I read obsessively. I read a lot of urban fiction and urban romance novels. Right now,I’m finishing up “Not Paved for Us: Black Educators and Public School Reform in Philadelphia” by Camika Royal and next up is “Unearthing Joy” by Gholdy Muhammad.
I also taught myself to knit and you will always see me with a ball of yarn and two needles. I knitted a sweater for my teacher’s daughter, and I made it like a rainbow. It was so cute.
Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at firstname.lastname@example.org.