“Now teachers, the announcement you’ve all been waiting for,” are the words English teacher Thurman Allen shouts out over the public address system before giving the Teacher of the Week award to the teacher whose students have deemed them hardworking and passionate about what they do.
But there’s a group of valuable educators who will rarely, if ever, hear their name called, despite embodying thosequalities every day. They are the special education aides and support education assistants who play a vital role in the lives of the students entrusted to them.
The responsibilities of a special education aide vary, ranging from helping a student complete homework to providing day-long assistance. These responsibilities differ from those of a Support Education teacher. Teacher aides supervise students outside the classroom setting and supplement their learning with engaging activities.
Aide to students with special needs at the high school Vicki Gorsek said most aides work with students on class work, making sure they are understanding it.
“They all have a routine during the day,” Gorsek said. “Typically, we do what the teacher asks us to do with the student. We make sure they do it, and we check their work, and we go over it with them and make any corrections. We get to come in here and have fun with the kids and not have to worry about all the other paperwork and all that other stuff.”
According to its website, the Mason City School district aims to promote inclusion of the special education program in the general education environment, which it has identified as the least restrictive environment for learning. Part of this means providing the services of special education aides, who are available throughout the school day. Aides are not permanently assigned to a single student but instead are able to work with any student that needs assistance.
Gorsek, formerly an aide at the Mason Intermediate school, said that a large part of an aide’s job also includes equipping students with life skills, like cooking and cleaning.
“It’s rewarding when they finally have a social skill,” Gorsek said. “When I came over to the high school, I had the same students all over again, and it was really awesome for me to see the things that we had worked on so hard at the intermediate level.”
Ten percent of Mason’s student population is enrolled in the district’s special education program. As part of this program, the district employs 153 aides, who are available at every level of a student’s education. Often, aides provide physical care, such as feeding, lifting, moving, or cleaning, for students who are unable to care for themselves as well as behavioral management. Some aides at the high school assist with work study programs, which allow the students to go out and gain job experience at local businesses like Walgreens and City Barbecue.
Although the qualifications needed to become an aide are not as extensive as teacher licensure requirements, District Human Resources Talent Management Officer Marla Nielbling said that her team looks for certain character traits when hiring an aide.
“We look for a person who is caring, compassionate, dedicated, hard-working, has patience and has a genuine interest in seeing all students succeed,” Niebling said. “Additionally, we seek individuals who have exceptional attendance as our students with disabilities need structure and a consistent presence and support network.”
Gorsek said that while the job can be challenging but the job as many rewards.
“Every day is a challenge,” Gorsek said. “Everybody feels different every day. They’re people too. We’re always trying to meet each individual’s needs. Whether it be an emotional need or a school work need, and most parents are very friendly. They’re very appreciative. They’re happy that their kids are happy.”
Virginia Neal, an aide at the high school, said the job puts things in perspective and despite its challenges, her job has been a valuable experience.
“I’m sure it’s not for everybody,” Neal said. “But it’s definitely an experience that I think everybody should have just to get a better understanding of what these kids go through. You really understand that your problems aren’t as big as you think they are when you come in and see what these children deal with every single day. It makes you count your blessings.”