Zeke Michel found his calling long before he could verbalize it as a career goal while working as a peer tutor mentoring fellow Hillcrest High students with intellectual disabilities.
That nascent interest steered him to seek a job as an after-school custodian at Jordan Valley, Canyons District’s school for students with severe disabilities. In 2015, when an opening presented itself, he applied for a position as a para-educator at the school, which blossomed into a full-time teaching job. Four years later, he was named Jordan Valley’s Teacher of the Year.
“I just fell in love with the kids at Jordan Valley,” Michel says. “Call it fate, or whatever. But I feel pretty lucky to have found my path, a paying profession pursuing my passion at an organization that has been enriching the lives of exceptional students for many years.”
Canyons District needs more Zeke Michels. But in the face of a nationwide teaching shortage, recruiters don’t have the luxury to leave the recruitment process to luck or fate. So, Canyons’ talent scouts have struck an innovative partnership with the University of Utah to introduce peer tutors to the world of special education and encourage them to consider majoring in education in college.
Enrollment in teacher training programs at the nation’s colleges and universities is on the decline, and more teachers are leaving the profession each year than are entering the classroom. Special education teachers are especially in high demand along with para-educators who are hired to assist in their classrooms. In Canyons District alone, there are currently 24 positions open for full- and part-time para-educators.
“We know many peer tutors and para-educators move on to become special education teachers. Why not plant the seeds now to grow that natural pipeline?” says Canyons District recruiter Jo Jolley.
The curriculum for Canyons’ new “Introduction to Special Education” course was designed by and will be taught by U. faculty as an after-school elective at Alta High starting this spring. Students will earn college credit in the course, which is similar to another “Introduction to Education” course that Canyons and the U. co-sponsor at Hillcrest High.
“Our stated mission as a District is to prepare students for college and careers, and we have a population of students who have demonstrated an interest in special education. It really behooves us to provide them with innovative opportunities to explore that,” says Tifny Iacona, Assistant Director of Special Education and Related Services.
For Michel, being a peer tutor was fun and gratifying. But, he says, it was working as a para-professional in the classroom that revealed “how much of an impact I could have in helping students achieve.”
Positive, healthy and caring relationships are at the heart of all learning, and para-educators are at the forefront of that relationship-building. “Para-educators are able to develop strong bonds with students because they work so closely with them. At Jordan Valley, they ride the bus with students or work one-on-one with them or in groups to help them develop life skills,” Michel says. “Sometimes, you’re the first face students encounter at school, and being there to welcome them and celebrate their successes can set the tone for their entire school day or year.”
In special education, the successes may sometimes seem intangible. “Success could mean a student walking down the hall independently or paying attention in class for 20 minutes,” Michel says. “But small successes lead to big successes, and they happen every single day.”
We’re Hiring Para-Educators
- The para-educator position is a great option for stay-at-home moms and dads who have school-age kids, because it’s part-time and the work hours coincide with the time that kids are in school. Canyons has openings in preschool and special education classrooms. If you’re already volunteering at your neighborhood school, this is a good way to contribute while also getting paid.
- Last year, 130 of CSD’s teachers with a bachelor’s or advanced degree in special education qualified for legislatively-approved $4,100 stipends through the Utah State Board of Education. Additionally, 62 CSD teachers in self-contained classrooms received District-funded stipends of $3,000 for undergoing special training. In all, these teachers benefitted to the tune of about $720,000. And that comes on top of two consecutive years of sizeable teacher pay increases approved by the Canyons Board of Education. Qualified teachers are eligible to receive these stipends every year.