Growing up as a young girl in Mexico City, Michelle Fowler was a curious and quick child. She loved learning and always wanted to know what was happening next—to the point that she would sometimes sneak off to different classrooms and see for herself. Her own journey as a learner—in school and in life—helps her understand the children she works with as a paraprofessional in the Learning Alternative Program (LAP).
From Mexico City to Ottawa Right Where She Belongs
When Michelle talks about her work, it becomes clear that listening and observing are two of the most important things she does in her job. By paying such close attention to the student she is working with she can often anticipate their needs and quickly respond in kind. She tells us that what is at the core of her job is making the student feel comfortable: with her, the teacher, other students, and what they are learning. Sometimes an anxious student might just need a word of encouragement, or a nervous student someone to hold their hand. Ms. Fowler keeps trying until she finds just the right intervention to help the student move forward. It is obvious that this job requires a very particular personality and skill set and it seems like, for Michelle, it is a perfect fit.
She didn’t necessarily plan to become a paraprofessional, or even know that she would end up living, marrying and raising her four children in a small Illinois river community. However, like with most things, it would seem that Ms. Fowler figured it out and made the best of her situation. She ended up loving the town of Ottawa and says she can’t imagine living anywhere else. As a stay-at-home Mom when her children were younger she was so impressed with the quality of the schools and the committed and caring teachers.
When her two eldest were grown and her youngest (twin girls in the 7th grade at Ottawa), grown enough, she wanted to give something back to the community. She approached the school district about volunteering. Initially, she helped out with translation for families for whom Spanish was their first language. In fact, families would come to her home and seek help with registering their children in school. Now, she notes, there are students from several different countries and much more diversity than when she first moved here.
Always wanting to do more, to help more, Michelle was eventually hired as a paraprofessional and tells us that she really loves her job. One of the nicest things about it is being able to sometimes stay with a child over several years and watch them grow and develop. In one case, she worked with a student for five years and celebrated each new skill he achieved with a “You go boy!” Every child in the LAP classroom has an individualized education plan, or IEP, and she supports both teacher and student in helping to realize their goals. Ms. Fowler will jump in and do whatever is needed in the moment, whether it is making snack or cutting paper. She feels strongly about helping the teacher be able to focus on the big picture while she attends to the individual student in her care.
How do her 7th-grade daughters feel about having their Mom in school? For now, they appreciate it and like being able to seek her out if they are having a tough day. She wonders if by next year, as teenagers, they will feel differently. But she will roll with the change like a pro, as she always does.
We marvel at the way in which paraprofessionals like Ms. Fowler become specialists in the students they work with—having the time and space to learn their stories and what does and doesn’t work for them in terms of their social-emotional and academic learning needs. She is clearly of the belief that one should keep trying until they find what works. This willingness to keep trying new things seems to keep the work interesting and rewarding. As she says, “There is never a dull moment, and every day is an adventure.”