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Virginia Journal of Education

Holding the Candle

How teachers and paraprofessionals can shine some light on each other's practice.


by Jill Morgan and Betty Y. Ashbaker

There is a common phrase in the English language which provides useful insight into the role of classroom paraprofessionals and the ways they can assist teachers in their work. We say, in various versions: “She can't hold a candle to (someone),” meaning that she is much less skilled than the other person. The idiom originated in the context of traditional trade and craft apprenticeships, when a father would pay a master craftsman to train his son – a process that took up to seven years and often involved the child actually moving into the craftsman’s household. Even at the end of the seven years, master craftsman status could be well in the future, but at least the apprentice could finally hire himself out as a journeyman and begin to earn a living.

One of the apprentice's duties, especially early in training, would be to hold a light so that the master craftsman could see to carry out his work. And of course, that light would have been a candle. It’s not difficult to see paraprofessionals as apprentices as they work alongside teachers – who could rightly be seen as master craftsmen. However, comparing a paraprofessional to an apprentice holding the candle for the master may seem to suggest that she is working at the very lowest level of usefulness, doing a job which could be performed by even the newest and least skilled apprentice. But let’s consider the deeper implications of this collaboration between master craftsman and apprentice:

• Without the light (held by the apprentice), the master craftsman could not see to do his work, so the task of holding the light may have been a simple one, but it was also essential.

• The candle needed to be held in order to shed light where it was especially needed; a lamp or candle simply placed near the master craftsman as he worked was not enough – the light needed to be directed to focus on the particular task being done. The master craftsman was not able to carry out that task and direct the light at the same time; he needed the extra pair of hands of the apprentice.

• As the apprentice held the light, he was able to watch the master craftsman at work, and thereby he learned the trade over the hours spent observing his craftsmanship;

• As the apprentice held the light so that it shone on the particular aspect of the master craftsman’s work currently being done, the apprentice’s attention would be drawn to the details of that part of the work. As the task at hand was completed with the apprentice observing, the apprentice gained from repeated examples of how the master craftsman carried out that process.

• A wise master craftsman might have offered a running commentary on the task at hand, thus further drawing the apprentice’s attention to details of the work and maximizing the teaching opportunity.

Seen in this light (so to speak), this seems like a perfect metaphor for the relationship between a teacher and a paraprofessional. Working alongside and observing the teacher and the work he or she does, a paraprofessional can learn the craft of teaching as the teacher models various aspects of it. Day by day, the repetition of tasks and variation in techniques, used according to individual student needs, can be observed and absorbed by the paraprofessional. And if the teacher is wise, she will not leave it to chance and hope that the paraprofessional just absorbs good practice by osmosis, but will guide her thinking and learning by providing a commentary (when it would be appropriate and not distract from teaching) on what she is observing. In addition, in working alongside a teacher, a paraprofessional can also help to “shed light” on what the teacher does, so that the teacher also sees his or her work more clearly, and is able to carry it out more precisely and effectively. It is worth noting that although we have said that there is no implication here that paraprofessionals are only able to perform the most basic of tasks, even the newest apprentice could hold the candle for the master craftsman. So we may say that this is an all-inclusive analogy. We are neither denigrating this apparently humble task as something unworthy of the veteran paraprofessional, nor do we need to exclude the newest and least experienced paraprofessional from contributing to the work of the classroom and collaborating with the master craftsman in the craft of teaching.

If you’re a teacher, stop and think for a moment how the paraprofessional you work with might “enlighten” you in your work. If your role within the school is not teaching, you may still ask yourself these questions: What is it about having a paraprofessional present in the classroom (or even working under a teacher’s direction in another part of the school) that would help teachers to better “see” what they’re doing, and therefore work more effectively? And what is the light that the paraprofessional holds? What might the candle represent in the modern classroom situation with teacher and paraprofessional, rather than apprentice and master craftsman? You might want to make this the topic of reflection if you have formed the habit of reflecting on your daily professional practice on a regular basis. Meanwhile, we offer these suggestions:

• There is something about being observed that keeps us all on our toes. Suddenly we’re much more aware of what we’re doing and saying – we realize how often we repeat certain phrases, or perhaps we find ourselves raising our voices, or only raising our voices with certain students. This increased awareness prompted by having an observer involved in our work really can help us to be more aware of our actions, to see more clearly what sort of a professional we are, and what we typically do. We may not like some of it, but unless we become aware of it, we are unlikely to change.

• An observer can make us painfully aware of our shortcomings, but hopefully also oblige us to acknowledge (and deliberately use) our strengths and expertise in the classroom (or elsewhere in the school). You can “show off” your skills and expertise to your paraprofessional. Perhaps the best thing about this is that no one loses out – the paraprofessional sees examples of best practice right there in her working environment, students benefit as you use best practice (and the paraprofessional quickly learns to do so), and you can feel good about the standard of teaching that your students are experiencing. And of course this works equally as well in reverse – if you make arrangements to regularly observe your paraprofessional as she completes her classroom assignments, she can “show off” her growing repertoire of skills, giving you an opportunity to see her at her best and gauge whether she is ready to take on more technical responsibilities or requires further training to prepare her for such.

• If you are deliberate in supervising or working closely with your paraprofessional, you undoubtedly share learning objectives and lesson planning with her. You cannot share what you do not have. So here again the necessity of having clear goals for student learning, and having those goals translated into the everyday stuff of lesson plans and objectives is highlighted when you have someone supporting you in those endeavours, who needs to understand what you are intending and why. Your purpose and work are clarified and enlightened by the need to communicate them to a co-worker.

• The candle which the paraprofessional holds may also represent her need for understanding and knowledge. She is seeking greater expertise and hoping to be enlightened herself, and so she sheds light on your work by seeking to support you in it.

Notice that in this comparison between the apprentice-master craftsman relationship and the paraprofessional-teacher relationship, if you are the teacher, you are the equivalent of the master craftsman – which indeed you are, as you have been trained in the craft of teaching. Even if you have not been practicing that craft for very long, you have received focused and specific training (over the course of several years), and are thereby qualified to take the lead and show the way. If you’re working with a veteran paraprofessional there may be additional ways in which she can shed light on the work of the classroom as her years of experience can complement your formal qualifications, and provide insight for you as the newcomer to that particular class of students, school and community.

We would suggest, too, that there are some recommendations for teachers concealed in this analogy. Three principles can be distilled from the analogy of the apprentice holding the candle:

• The apprentice performed essential work.
• The work performed by the apprentice was focused on a specific aspect of the master craftsman’s work.
• The focused efforts of the apprentice simultaneously facilitated the master craftsman’s work and offered learning opportunities for the apprentice.

These three principles translate into questions that you can ask yourself about the work which you and your paraprofessional do in collaboration, or in support of each other.
• Is the work that I give my paraprofessional essential to my work as a teacher and facilitator of learning – or is it just fill or busy work?
• Is my paraprofessional’s work linked to very specific and focused aspects of my work as a teacher?
• Does my paraprofessional’s work facilitate mine and offer opportunities for her to learn?

These are obviously questions that only you can answer for your own classroom, as you assign responsibilities and coordinate your efforts and hers. But we recommend that you take some time to give them due consideration and make changes if necessary so that you make best use of your paraprofessional’s time and talents. And – if you are brave – you might ask your paraprofessional’s opinion on these questions. She is sure to be able to shed light here, too.

Morgan is a senior lecturer on the Foundation Degree in Learning Support at the Swansea Metropolitan University in Wales, United Kingdom. Ashbaker is an associate professor of education at Brigham Young University. Their work on the relationship between teachers and paraprofessionals has appeared previously in the Journal.



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