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Instructional assistants providing one-two punch for students

Siler City Elementary instructional assistant Paula Shackelford is helping students become fluent in English and Spanish.

SILER CITY — When the lead teacher’s away, the students don’t just goof around and play — not when Paula Shackelford’s around.

Shackelford is the instructional assistant for Siler City Elementary School teacher Shirley Rojas. It means Shackelford is not ultimately responsible for the lesson planning and all that goes into running their classroom. Yet Shackelford’s hands-on approach has an air of care exuding that the buck stops with her.Siler City Elementary instructional assistant Paula Shackelford is helping students become fluent in English and Spanish.

“It's because I feel a commitment to not let my partner work alone,” Shackelford said. “We are two in the classroom, and both of us are responsible for our students’ progress.”

Shackelford’s approach is in keeping with Chatham County Schools (CCS) Superintendent Dr. Derrick D. Jordan’s view that instructional assistants are not mere classroom helpers. The instructional assistants employed in CCS are very much involved with what happens in classrooms, he said. Bonlee School teacher Katie Palmer sees that in her instructional assistant, Denise Beaver.

“Denise Beaver is a valuable and influential part of our classroom,” Palmer said. “She collaborates with me on class activities, works one-on-one with students to help them be successful and promotes a safe and nurturing learning environment in our classroom. She also helps with the planning of class activities based on standards that we are currently teaching. Ms. Beaver has a positive attitude and is a team player not only in our classroom but for the whole school, as well. She develops deep and meaningful connections with our students, and these relationships help foster the positive learning environment that we have.”

Just doing her job, Beaver said.

“When a child finally learns something they have been struggling with, and I had a part of that, it makes my heart smile,” Beaver said.

At Siler City Elementary, the emphasis on students becoming fluent in both Spanish and English makes Shackelford a natural fit.  

“I enjoy teaching, and I'm proud to share my language, my culture and my traditions,” Shackelford said. “I was born with the desire to teach and worked very hard to become a teacher. In my beloved Guatemala, I graduated as a teacher in elementary education.”

Shackelford taught in Guatemala and spent time as an educator in Guilford County before embarking on what has been 15 years educating children in CCS. 

Last school year, Shackelford was an instructional assistant in Cristina Ruiz's classroom at Siler City Elementary. It was Ruiz's first year at the school and her first time teaching kindergarten in at least 20 years. There was a learning curve, but there Shackelford was as an educator's educator — more of a co-teacher than an assistant, Ruiz explained.

"She [was] not only my right hand but both my feet!" Ruiz said. "Mrs. Shackelford create[d] activities and lessons to enrich learning in our classroom. For example, I might say, 'Let's do this for your literacy groups,' and Mrs. Shackelford will say, 'OK, but could we also do this?' and then enhances the lesson in a way that hadn't occurred to me. Her insight is also infinitely helpful in targeting a child's specific needs or communicating with a parent. Mrs. Shackelford stays after her regular work hours to finish a task, even if it's something that can wait."

Ruiz said the lack of Spanish-speaking substitute teachers was not an issue for her, because she knew Shackelford would be in their classroom providing quality instruction in Spanish. 

“I love learning in order to teach,” Shackelford said. “In my classroom, I'm not just a statue. I plan with my teaching partner. We discuss what the objectives are, and, together, we work for the well-being of our children.

“Elementary teachers provide the basic foundation for our children's future,” Shackelford said. “My desire to prepare students to communicate well in Spanish is so that, in the future, they won't encounter language barriers and so they will be able to obtain the best jobs. Learning a new language is like learning to read; it opens your eyes to another world. I feel fulfilled when I see that our children understand what we say and when they start writing and reading short sentences in Spanish. It's amazing!”

Published Dec. 30, 2019