CRYSTAL LAKE – Gwen Taylor knows the day comes once every two years, but it never gets easier for her when it finally arrives.
After spending two years sharing walks down the hallways, experiencing academic and social struggles and achievements and learning a little more each day about each other and perspectives on life, it is always tough for Taylor to say goodbye to her student.
Taylor, an inclusion aide at Marlowe Middle School, is one of roughly 125 paraprofessionals in Huntley School District 158 dedicated to helping special-needs students on a one-on-one basis.
For two years, the aide helps with whatever is necessary, from talking with teachers to bridging communication gaps to helping organize a locker.
“It’s always hard, but you just have to trust you’ve done your job well,” Taylor said of saying goodbye to each student she helps. “It’s been so fulfilling for me. I absolutely love it. It even inspired my daughter to pursue a college degree as a special education teacher.”
Karen Alyward, director of special education for District 158, said inclusion aides have become vital to the program over the years. By law, there can be no more than eight special-needs students per teacher in a classroom, but Alyward said the district works to keep the ratio much lower to make sure individual students get the attention they need.
The aides can be especially helpful when it comes to helping the students integrate with the general education students and other teachers in courses such as physical education, art and music.
“In the real world, these students are going to have to interact with all different types of people,” Alyward said. “But that’s also why it is important we transition from one aide to another every two years or so.”
The bond between aide and student is one reason Sharon Peckham decided to switch to that role. Peckham, who served as a paraprofessional in a recess and lunch supervisor role, decided to take the inclusion aide certification course at McHenry County College and has worked in that capacity for the past seven years.
Peckham said each student she has served during her time has had different needs and formed different relationships with her, but it is a much closer bond than those experienced when she supervised dozens of students at one time.
“It’s a unique relationship for sure,” she said. “They all respond differently and there are always challenges, but the rewards definitely outweigh the struggles. I just love the kids.”
Despite employing roughly 125 inclusion aides in the district, Alyward said it is often a thankless and overlooked position as many people do not even know about the work of the aides.
“They are a huge piece of the large puzzle that is education,” Alyward said.