In a state where 300,000 new teachers will be needed over the next decade, para-educators (individuals who work in the classroom assisting teachers while earning their credentials) make ideal teacher candidates themselves.
Jose Rodriguez, a fifth grade teacher at Heliotrope Elementary in Maywood, California is a prime example of a para-educator who took the extra steps to pursue the helm of his own classroom. After an unsatisfying engineering internship in college, Rodriguez began to explore different career options. A friend at Heliotrope Elementary, who was a para-educator, introduced Rodriguez to the concept. After a couple of weeks, Rodriguez switched majors at Cal State Los Angeles from engineering to child development.
“Once in the classroom, I had a lot of fun,” exclaims Rodri-guez, who is now credentialed, finishing up his master’s degree and looking into doctoral programs. “I had forgotten how much of a difference one person can make. It sounds cliché, but you really impact their lives in many different ways. You can make students feel like they are a part of something bigger; letting them know they can do anything they set their minds to. To me, that’s awesome.”
For Rodriguez, the son of immigrant farm workers from Mexico, the transition from engineering to teaching was a dubious one. He didn’t know what was required or expected, especially after three years of taking math-related course-work. A support program offered through the Los Angeles Unified School District called the Paraeducator Career Ladder helped him maneuver the tricky waters that separate a paraeducator from a fully credential teacher. Today, Rodriguez leads some of the Paraeducator Career Ladder workshops he sat in just a few years ago.
According to Steve Brandick of the LAUSD Paraeducator Career Ladder, the Paraeducator Career Ladder programs are invaluable to potential teachers because they impart support on different levels.
“Our program provides guidance, assistance with state-mandated exams, tuition reimbursement and hiring assistance,” said Brandick. “The ultimate goal is to help paraeducators become credentialed teachers.”
Rodriguez’ commitment to teaching and education, in general, is evident in the way he conducts his classes. He has built a strong bond with his fifth graders in the two years he has taught them. Rodriguez’ priorities are not only introducing state-required fifth grade concepts to his students, but also instilling in them the fact that, above all else, education offers options - options that many of the low income, minority children in Maywood unfortunately don’t have. He teaches this valuable lesson by using real life examples.
“I draw a diagram showing all the levels of education, from kindergarten straight through an advanced degree,” Rodriguez explains. “Then I ask them, ‘if you only graduate from junior high, what can you do, and from high school, and from the university.’ They’ll come up with different answers accordingly. Then I ask, ‘if you have a Ph.D. can you still sell elotes, or paletas?’ They’ll answer ‘no’ in unison. But then I explain ‘yes, you can, because education is all about choices. You’re not limited to just one.’”
Rodriguez’ excursions with his classroom to local universities, such as UCLA and USC, solidify in his students’ young minds that anything is possible. “Once they step foot on those campuses, they realize it can happen for them. They begin to think, ‘Oh my gosh, I can live here,’” he says. This attitude is what drives Rodriguez.
California faces a shortage of qualified teachers largely driven by an ever-expanding student enrollment, mandated class size reduction and the growing attrition of today’s teacher workforce as a large proportion reach retirement age.
The California Center for Teaching Careers (CalTeach) is a one-stop information, recruitment and referral service for individuals considering or pursuing a teaching career. CalTeach, administered by the CSU Chancellor’s Office, can be reached by phone at 1-888-CALTEACH (225-8322), or via the Internet at www.calteach.com. CalTeach also works closely with the California Teacher Recruitment Incentive Program (CalTRIP). Six centers are located in Sacramento, Tulare, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and San Diego. The teacher recruitment centers provide job placement assistance by partnering with local school districts to ensure that teachers are placed in classrooms through a seamless and efficient hiring process. These centers can be reached through the CalTeach helpline at 1-888-CALTEACH (225-8322).