Randy Patterson does a little bit of everything. As a paraeducator at Stevens Forest Elementary School in Columbia, Patterson is often helping students one-on-one, assisting with lunch, recess and other tasks to help teachers and students.
He even dresses up as the school mascot — Bobby the Bobcat — during schoolwide events.
“If we have an event, I dress up as the mascot and play some music and do some of the dances so I can relate to them a little more,” Patterson said. “Students sometimes are not always excited about education. We have to meet the kids where they are.”
Patterson, who has been at Stevens Forest for six years, recently received the Maryland State Education Association Educational Support Professional of the Year award. He was nominated by Colleen Morris, Howard County Education Association president, and found out he won the award in September.
“I was so excited and surprised,” Patterson said. “I don’t do what I do for accolades, but it’s always nice to be recognized for all your hard work.”
“We are so proud of Mr. Patterson,” Stevens Forest Principal Joy Smith said. “He is dedicated to the students. He builds relationships with the students, and he’s a role model for them.”
Educational support professionals aren’t talked about as much as teachers, but they’re often the ones who keep schools and classrooms on track, according to Smith. They assist in daily classroom activities, meeting with small groups of students and assisting teachers in myriad tasks.
“Their role is really critical to the success of a school,” Smith said. “The role they play [is] assisting and supporting teachers and working with students so that teachers can plan and teachers can meet in different groups. We really rely heavily on our [educational support professionals].”
Patterson, 40, grew up in upstate New York and moved to Maryland eight years ago. Being a paraeducator, he believes, is all about fostering relationships with students.
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“Teachers are extremely busy, and there are so many demands put on them — grading, planning and other things,” Patterson said. “We’re there as aides to build relationships with the students. Some of the students may gravitate more to the paraeducators because they have more time with them.”
During virtual learning because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, paraeducators have seen parts of their roles shift. In addition to helping teachers, they also serve as a second adult in most classrooms. If a teacher is having technical difficulties, the paraeducator can step in to lead the lesson or help students. If specific students are having challenges, they can help them as well.
“In virtual learning, the main thing is the social interactions,” Patterson said. “We have the opportunity to change the face of education in this virtual setting. The relationships have changed because we’re not face to face, but we have to be resilient and make sure all the needs of the students are being met.”
Some paraeducators are also meeting with small groups of students virtually, while others are helping with the school system’s limited face-to-face support programs at 19 schools across Howard County.
Smith said that while she could list dozens of attributes that make Patterson a great paraeducator, she said his willingness to dress up as the school’s mascot proves his dedication to encouraging students.