Mentorship at Spero Academy

Mentorship at Spero Academy 
Part One: The Para Mentor Program

by Devin Taylor

Spero Academy is a place of learning-- and not just for our students! In order for students to do their best learning while feeling safe and supported at school, teachers, paras, and specialists are always learning too. 

As general knowledge of the learning process evolves, classroom technology advances, and curriculum is refined, staying ahead of the curve is imperative. All the while, Spero’s academic experts are hard at work cultivating our approach to teaching in a way that addresses the social and emotional needs of every student. 

This provides a perfect place for professionals to hone their skills and apply their knowledge--especially those whose work extends beyond the walls of Spero Academy. Numerous aspiring teachers find their home here as paraprofessionals and teaching assistants while they complete their education, gaining real-world experience which professional students can take back to the classroom. With so many beginning their careers at Spero Academy, it’s important to have a network of support in place. 

As a provider of individualized education, we are always looking for new and better ways to support our students-- our mission, after all, is to foster the academic, social, and emotional development of every child. But as our knowledge of special education grows, the importance of staff development to overall growth has become increasingly apparent. Staff surveys conducted during the last school year revealed a strong desire for more professional development opportunities and paths to advancement among paraprofessionals. Given the rising demand for qualified individuals to fill this role, this request for more training and development can only be seen as a positive. It shows that the professionals entrusted to work most closely with our students both recognize and value the significance of the work. 

Spero Academy’s lead para, Ryan Vaughan, shares his take on the importance of paraprofessionals: 

“I’ve always viewed the paras as the backbone of the classroom,” says Ryan. “A strong support system helps hold everything together … My role is to get them what they need; resources, information, or just a helping hand.” 

When new paras are hired at Spero Academy, there is a lot to absorb beyond the basics of the daily schedule and getting to know the students. With teacher guidance, paras help each student meet their individual academic goals, while simultaneously providing social and emotional support according to individual student needs. Many paras provide a great deal of assistance with activities of daily living, as well as data tracking and assistance with student assessment. 

It’s a lot to juggle right out of the gate-- and depending on your level of experience, the learning curve can be rather steep. 

So, how do we ensure that new staff starting at Spero Academy receive the attention and support they deserve?

In any given year, paras constitute the majority of new hires at Spero Academy. Over the last two years, our enrollment increased by thirty percent, and the need for qualified classroom professionals grew with it. These candidates come from a variety of backgrounds— from public schools, to PCA and homecare organizations, to graduate programs in education. This melting pot of experience is ideal for developing and teaching the “whole child.” As Vaughan notes: “Children’s social and emotional needs are such a crucial part of their learning. Spero has a unique approach, and making that transition easier is really important.”  

As lead para, Vaughan has been the go-to for new hire orientation, staff liaison, and classroom support. But as our community flourishes, so does the demand for experienced Spero personnel who can provide ongoing responsive guidance. Given the past success of our Teacher Mentor program, implemented in 2016, it made sense to apply the same model when onboarding new paraprofessional staff. 

Of course, the challenge of acclimating to a new work environment is not unique to Spero Academy or special education. New-hire mentoring programs are implemented in a variety of workplace settings and are generally beneficial to both the mentor and protégé. Beyond helping new employees find their footing, mentorship is shown to improve workplace culture in general. Mentors have the ability to influence the outlook and perspective of their protégé while providing liaison between new hires and the administration. In many respects, they are curators of the psychosocial climate of the workplace. 

Finding candidates to fill such a role at Spero Academy was easy, given the high quality that exists among our paraprofessionals-- not to mention the sincere outpouring of interest in the position. But narrowing it down was anything but! Ultimately, eight mentors were selected from a pool of applicants and in the Summer of 2019, the Para Mentor program took its first breaths. 

It started with honest conversation...

The first task set before the group was to determine where and how mentorship was most needed. Over the summer, Vaughan and the para mentors met with school administrators to discuss the important areas of their work and areas where support is most crucial. They spent the weeks before the start of the school year creating training modules and presentations to help new paras begin the year with confidence.

“It’s been really interesting to be on the ground floor of it,” says para mentor, Gina Bonin, who talks about her own beginnings as a paraprofessional before coming to Spero:

“With my first job, they kind of threw me in” says Bonin. “I had to learn by observation and intuition. When I came [to Spero Academy] there was more training, but I was hired after the official training and there wasn’t a para mentor program. That’s a big difference that the para mentors can make.”

Staff development has always been an important part of the Spero Academy school year. Prior to the start of the year, all Spero staff undergo an intensive week of training to ready themselves for the year ahead. Subsequent Staff Development days scheduled throughout the year provide useful new trainings as well as refreshers of past training.  Having a team of experienced mentors focused exclusively on the needs of paras means paras get more out of these training hours as well as ongoing support throughout the school year. 

“There will always be people coming in when there isn’t a training set up,” notes Bonin. “[The Para Mentor program] is a really nice thing for new hires who come in the middle of the school year.”

The benefits of the program are twofold. Para mentors provide orientation, guidance, and support to new staff, and in turn they are granted the opportunity to “level up” in their career, adding a new dimension to their work at Spero. 

“For me, the biggest thing is feeling more of a sense of responsibility,” says Bonin. “Knowing that people are taking their cues from me-- that reminds me to always do the best I can-- to take responsibility, take action. That’s how I want to do the job anyway, but it’s a reminder that I’m setting an example.”

So how is the program doing, you ask?

The year is well underway and it seems the program has made a meaningful impact. “We’ve heard some great feedback from paras about the program,” says Vaughan. “We just did a check-in with the new staff and got some great insight and really positive comments on feeling supported joining the team.” 

“The vibe feels really good this year,” says Bonin. “I think things as they are are really great and now [with the para mentor program] you have more people who are really looking around and thinking ‘what can I do to make this even better?’”

Paraprofessional work is broad, complex, and important. Our unique focus on developing the whole child through personalized, adaptive education cannot be done without the work of truly skilled and dedicated professionals. Only by intentionally fostering a climate of support and guidance around our educators and caregivers on the frontlines, can we truly support the academic, social, and emotional growth of every child.