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The Paras of Spero in an Era of Heroes

by Devin Taylor

On March 18th, Spero Academy temporarily closed its doors in accordance with an executive order from the governor of Minnesota in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. Since then we’ve been focusing on the “Heroes of Spero” -- the teachers and staff, and the students and families who have come together to navigate a new and continually changing time in educational history.

Many of our students, parents, and guardians are old pros when it comes to facing the unknown and tackling the seemingly insurmountable. But for some of us, this is uncharted territory. Life and work are different for everyone these days, and this is especially true for those whose line of work involves the close, interpersonal care and guidance of students.  

We’re talking, of course, about our paraprofessional staff -- those friendly faces and calm, reassuring presence that contribute so much to a Spero student’s day. From Morning Meeting to shared reading, their voices and faces are a sign of normalcy to their students. We wanted to check in with some of these folks and hear what they had to say about the work they love, the students they miss, and their hopes for the future. Just how are they doing during this time of distance learning? 


Greg Pickett, a personalized learning support (PLS) para and professional storyteller talks of his experience during this time of distance:

I'm a professional storyteller (trust me, it's a thing! look it up lol). All of my storytelling events have been cancelled because of the pandemic. However, in putting together a distance learning plan, I've recorded myself reading children's books that our students will be able to listen to at home.

Being able to meld my passion for storytelling with my love for helping people has been a great boon to me. 

In that vein of helping people, Greg is also one of the paras providing onsite childcare for children of Tier I and II essential employees. He describes Spero as “Not just a place to work. I have truly found a home at Spero Academy.” 

This sense of homecoming has been noted by numerous staff, students, and parents over the years. The feeling of belonging and unconditional acceptance is perhaps a product of our mission and its focus on compassion and the needs of the individual. Greg goes on to say:

I've been a paraprofessional for over five years and I have to say that Spero is by far one of the best schools in the state of Minnesota to work for. The level of care we provide for our students is really unmatched. Our students truly have individualized learning set up for them and it is amazing to see it being implemented. Even more amazing is to be a part of the process! I mean truly be a part of the process. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I've worked alongside my co-workers (from home) on putting in place distance learning plan options for our students. It has been a rich and rewarding experience throughout. 

Other first-year Spero staff have joined Greg in talking about the unique experience of working at Spero, citing the social and emotional climate of the school as both a workplace and a learning environment. PLS para, Laura Vail, shares her thoughts on this culture of acceptance:

I have worked in a number of special education and therapeutic settings for children with autism over the last several years. Spero Academy is the first place whose values I’ve found to align well with my own, and where I feel at ease with my coworkers and the overall work culture. For me, a primary contributing factor to Spero’s positive work environment is the diversity in the staff. As an LGBTQ identifying individual, I find it extremely important to work in a space that is welcoming and accepting of everyone. Working next to people who look, speak, and live differently than me at Spero is an enriching experience. Within my first workweek, I felt comfortable sharing with my coworkers about myself and my family, something I haven’t done at every job. That sense of comfortability, I think,  is indicative of a greater culture of true acceptance—of staff, students, and the wide array of different perspectives they bring to school each day.

This sense of community is echoed by Madeline O’Neil, another para who has stepped up to provide onsite childcare during this time. When asked what creates a sense of belonging at Spero, she responded: 

When you walk down the hallways and staff and kiddos alike say hi to you. The sense of community is also there when other staff are always willing to offer help if they see you struggling with a kiddo in the hall, for example. 

It is without a doubt one of the most inclusive, welcoming communities I have been privileged to be a part of. The climate is encouraging, playful, and supportive. You see that in the Star Staff Team of the Week. You see that in our Para Mentors. You see that in our different clubs and groups we are working to set up; staff book club, sign language class, Coffee Cart led by the kids on Mondays and Thursdays, etc.

Madeline goes on to talk about the experiential learning that occurs on the job at Spero: 

This job requires you to be flexible and really pushes you to think fast on your feet. I have learned that every single kiddo is so unique and special in their own way and although they might share the same disability; their skills, social development, pizazz is always vastly different. And that is what makes them all so special and a joy to work with everyday! (Most days :)) 

I learned that I am passionate about working with individuals. I need that human interaction piece to feel fulfilled and that I’ve helped make a difference. I am starting a Social Work Masters program in the fall and very excited to see what opportunities lay ahead for me. 

It is not uncommon for paras to find at Spero the career path they may not even have known they were seeking. So much happens here and so many experts perform vital services out of one building, the opportunities to discover a new passion are many and varied. 

Numerous paras discover hidden aspirations of teaching while working at Spero -- and, of course, many come to Spero with these aspirations already in place. PLS para, Chris Molenaar, is one of these educators.

Chris discusses his own background as both a student and educator, and his appreciation for Spero’s unique programming model:

As an educator who had only been exposed to very traditional, mid-western public schooling, I’m realizing that many of the educational formats I once considered to be “typical”, or “general”, are in fact incredibly narrow and inaccessible for many students. In many cases they were inaccessible for me, and I always felt that was my fault as a student, which I do not think is an uncommon feeling.

Indeed, this feeling is commonly shared among those who choose a career in education -- particularly those who find their place in the realm of special education. Helping students to overcome personal obstacles while creating a learning environment that works for each student’s individual needs is one way that educators can take what may have been broken or lacking in their own school experience and improve it for the students of today. It also helps us learn a great deal about ourselves, how to help ourselves, and how to help others. Chris goes on to say:

I’ve been learning--not just from training and resources, but from my day-to-day work in the classroom. I’m glad I’m learning these things now, so that in my future as an educator I’ll be better equipped to advocate for students like, and unlike, myself. We will always be working to improve how we teach. I think Spero is sincere in its mission to pursue accessibility for its students and staff, and I’m glad to be a part of it.  

Now more than ever, educators are being called upon to tap into their powers of transformation and innovation. As this strange new entity called “Distance Learning” becomes the temporary normal, teaching requires more rapid growth and development than ever before. Fortunately, Spero educators like Chris are up to the task, and are looking forward to the day that students can return to Spero Academy.

“There is something very joyful about our work,” says Chris. “Laughing and running with a student, or seeing a student express pride when they’ve overcome a challenge.”

Helping students to overcome challenges -- academically, socially, or emotionally -- may be the single most important part of paraprofessional work. The challenges currently facing students, families, and educators may be unprecedented and beyond our frame of reference, but as a community, we are pulling through. Amidst the daily uncertainty and apprehension felt by all, Spero Academy has been forging ahead with our gaze fixed firmly on the future. We have a list of lucky new students who will be joining Spero Academy in the Fall, who will attend our first ever Virtual Kindergarten Roundup. Our plans for a second Spero Academy location remain unhindered, and one of our priorities will be staffing the new building with a team of paraprofessionals as outstanding as those we currently have.

Bryce Vogel, a second grade para shares his thoughts about the future of Spero in the time of COVID-19:

I have been worried as of late about everything going on, as I am sure we all are. Lately, I have been asking myself where we are going and how will we get there? These are uncertain times. I think it is important that we view the positives as best we can.

In that vein, I have been thinking how fortunate I am to work at a school like Spero. I am utterly impressed by how fast the administration and teachers reinvented the wheel and worked hard to meet Gov. Walz executive order. 

The executive order to close all schools came on Sunday, March 15th. That afternoon, Spero administrators and several board members held an emergency meeting to address each area of school operations and plan for the uncertain weeks ahead. 

Bryce shares his initial trepidations following the order:

When I first heard, I was worried and panicked. But the administration quickly organized food delivery, technology lending and resources, and paras volunteered to provide care to children of parents in the medical field. We rallied together in a time of need for everyone. That is an important part to remember. Teachers and paras are working hard to prepare for long distance learning for our students. I will say, I am super excited for the kids to see what we have created and hopefully take some of the burden off of parents with learning. 

With eight weeks of distance learning behind us and Spero Academy closed for the remainder of the year, teachers and paras continue to create, collaborate, and innovate new ways to bring education to students. Our mission to provide personalized learning to each child while addressing the needs of the whole child has never been more important or more challenging. And our resolve to do so has never been stronger.

“Everything is new right now,” Bryce reminds us, “and some of us fear what we perceive as lost, meaning a more familiar way of life. However, I am certain that we will continue to band together and do what's right for our community.” He goes on to share words that he has found meaningful at this time, saying “I would like to finish off these thoughts with a poem, Calling The Lost by Mai Der Vang, that I feel adds meaning to this great time of change for us all:  

Hmong people say one’s spirit can run off,

Go into hiding underground.

Only the physical stays behind.

To heal, a shaman checks on the spirit

By scraping the earth,

Examining the dirt.

If an ant emerges,

He takes it inside,

Careful not to crush the ant with his hold,

Nor flutter its being into shock

With one exhale.

Sometimes we hide in ants, he says.

He will call for what left

to come back,

and for the found

to never leave.”

We’d like to thank the paraprofessionals who shared their thoughts, feelings, and experiences here, and all of our Spero paras for their tireless support, now and throughout the year. While we don’t know exactly how things will look when we are together once again, we know that we will be together. Until then, we remain united in our mission, our sense of community, and our ever present namesake: Hope.