Real Work, Real Life

Para educator, Disability Writer and Advocate

August 16, 2023 Emily Sampson Episode 25
Real Work, Real Life
Para educator, Disability Writer and Advocate
Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of Real Work, Real Life, I’m talking with Michelle Steiner, a para educator, disability writer and advocate. Michelle has a degree, but you don’t always need one to work as a paraeducator, so it can be a great opportunity to make an impact right away without a degree and with many of the benefits that come from working in a school system. 

As you’ll hear from Michelle, people with learning disabilities can face many challenges on the path to find employment. It’s important to note that people with disabilities are protected under the American Disabilities act, passed only in 1990, that prohibits discrimination in employment and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. From the Learning Disabilities Association of America, "people with LD possess average or above average intelligence levels, and often have varying areas of ability, or “a weakness within a sea of strengths.” They tend to be creative, persistent, loyal, and good problem-solvers, often achieving a high degree of success in the workplace when the disability is accommodated and their strengths are utilized to the fullest." 

Happily many employers are proactively working toward true disability inclusion Disability:IN ranks employers each year based on their level of disability inclusion.

You can read more of Michelle’s work on her blog, Michelle’s mission. You can find it here:

You can also follow Michelle here:
Instagram: @steiner7250 or Facebook:

Disability:IN 2022 Ranking:

If you like the show, please rate and review on iTunes and Spotify  (linked below) and please share with a friend! You can also follow the podcast on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Tiktok. And if you’d like to be interviewed here, or there is a particular job you’d like to learn about, please reach out at


Transcripts are now available here:

Michelle Paraeducator and Disability Advocate

[00:00:00] Welcome to real work real life, where I talked to real people about what they do for work and what that means for their lives. Today, I'm talking with Michelle Steiner, a para educator, disability writer, and advocate. Michelle has a degree, but you don't always need one to work as a para educator. So it can be a great opportunity to make an impact right away, without a degree. And with many of the benefits that come from working in a school system. 

As you'll hear from Michelle people with learning disabilities can face many challenges on the path to employment. It's important to note that people with disabilities are protected under the American disabilities act, which was passed only in 1990. But that prohibits discrimination and employment and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. 

From the learning disabilities association of America website, people with learning disabilities possess average or above average intelligence levels, and often have varying areas of ability or a weakness within a sea of [00:01:00] strengths. They tend to be creative, persistent, loyal, and good problem solvers. Often achieving a high degree of success in the workplace when the disability is accommodated and their strengths are utilized to the fullest. 

Happily many employers are proactively working toward true disability inclusion. 

Disability Inn is one source that ranks employers each year based on their disability inclusion. And you can find that list in the show notes. You can read more about Michelle's work on her blog Michelle's mission and follow her on Instagram and Facebook. And all of those are linked in the show notes. So let's get into it. 

Emily: Thank you so much for being here, Michelle.

Michelle: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Emily. I certainly appreciate it.

Emily: So what do you do for work?

Michelle: Well, I'm a paraeducator in a school for students that have disabilities and some who don't. And I also work as a blogger with my own blog called Michelle's Mission, and I'm a disability writer photographer and speaker as [00:02:00] well.

Emily: That is so cool. So what interested you initially about it? How did you get into this field?

Michelle: one of the things that definitely interested me was having a learning disability myself. I wanted to go into something and I wanted to be able to make a difference in the lives of other people that had disabilities.

Emily: I can absolutely understand that. That's amazing. So how did you get there to have the, full-time job you have now? What sort of education or certification was required to start working in the schools? I.

Michelle: Well, one of the things that I did was I started out at community college. I got my associate's degree in early childhood education. I had a lot of people who didn't even think I could do college. I can remember I had a teacher that said, well, with your math problems, maybe it would be better if you just went to a technical school.

And even when I, can remember a psychiatrist that evaluated me because in order to get the services I needed, I had to get [00:03:00] tested again. And the psychiatrist telling me, well, You're most likely not gonna go beyond a community college. and even my professor was telling me, oh, you're going to have limited job choices.

So I was able to do that. I didn't use accommodations initially, but I did eventually get there. I. And I graduated with my associate's degree in early childhood and I was able to move out on my own. And I worked in some childcare centers and I loved it, but they were temporary jobs and I always wanted more for myself and financially I had to move back in with my parents.

And during that time I thought, well, this might be the time to go back to university. My job was downsizing and I had. Free time. I wasn't working and I can remember, I researched the right program that had disability accommodations and it was a service and a special ed, and I got in there and it was so much better when I used the accommodations and I advocated for myself.

I made Dean's list for a [00:04:00] semester. And yeah. And I was able to graduate with the bachelor's degree in community programming for Americans with disabilities. Now they call it transition specialists, but the job I'm at, it doesn't require a degree. But it helps with having that, and I have that understanding and, and it took me a little while to find the right job.

I can remember I went through some places that just weren't the right fit for me, but I knew when I finally got into the school and I was a paraeducator, that this was going to be the right thing for me. And then the portion of writing for my blog came a few years ago. I had a friend that told me you really should write about having a learning disability in your story.

And I thought, oh, this is really personal. I don't wanna get into that. but when I finally got my first article published on the Mighty about opening up blocks with limited hand dexterity, I just found more of a connection with other people.

Emily: Yeah. Wow. Talk [00:05:00] about grit and resilience. That's so amazing. This is a pretty detailed question, but I am curious, do you know how much your education costs to get both the associates and the bachelor's degree?

Michelle: I was very blessed. That I was able to graduate debt free. And that was from having, well, for, from a few things. I had a lot of funding coming from Office. Voca Vocational Rehabilitation. They're wonderful for funding college, for people that have disabilities. They pay for all the testing to make sure you, have one.

And I was. Also extremely lucky whenever I went back to school, being that I was an independent adult, even though I was still living with my parents and I was passed I think I was like in my late twenties by that point, that a lot of that money kicked in from the state along with O V R again.

So I, I am not a hundred percent sure how much that cost because it was all covered.

Emily: That testing can be [00:06:00] really expensive to confirm your need for accommodation if you don't have any coverage. So that's amazing.

Michelle: Exactly. all that's paid for 

Emily: That's wonderful. So what kind of personality do you think would do well as a paraeducator?

Michelle: think the kind of personality that does well as a paraeducator is someone who's kind and caring, definitely and compassionate, because a lot of times we will get students that will come in and sometimes they're not. They're frustrated and they're scared, and so we have to kind of go. And be like, it's gonna be okay.

And we're, here to help you learn and be the kind of person that you are. And you have to have that drive of liking people and definitely liking students and students with disabilities and another important key is being a team player. 'cause you're going to be working with a special ed teacher.

You're going to be working with regular ed teachers, you're gonna be working with speech and language. You're gonna be working with administrative staff and everybody just works together. As a team, and that's [00:07:00] just so important for that child.

Emily: Absolutely. Yeah, I can imagine It really takes a, a lot of coordination with others. That's, that's fascinating. What do you make in that role and what kind of benefits I. Do you qualify for? is it a public school?

Michelle: It's a public school, so for what I end up making we have a union, so I I, we get a little bit every year a little more every year. And that's based upon how long you've been at the job? been there for a while, so I have. Gotten , significant amount of well, small raises throughout the years.

I've also one of the things, we have paid holidays, which is nice to be off. We also have a life insurance policy that we have as well. A pension is another thing too. Huge. Those are some of the benefits that we have. And also it's nice if we have a two hour delay. We live in Pennsylvania, so some of those.

Emily: Oh yeah.

Michelle: You'll wake up and there's this, you know, [00:08:00] a lot of snow or ice. And so if we have a two hour delay, we are compensated when we, even if we didn't work those two hours, we can go in and if there's of course if there's a snow day, we we're not. But we make those days up. So it's definitely a nice job.

Emily: That's great. What does healthcare look like working at the school?

Michelle: We have for part-time employees, which I am, we don't have that, but for full-time they do as well.

Emily: Oh, great. did you share what you make already, 

Michelle: I make about 14 almost 15 an hour, and that is hourly.

Emily: Yeah. I wish we paid educators better, but

um, yeah. So it, do you have an option to go full-time at some point if you wanted to go full-time or is part-time really more of the path for this sort of role?

Michelle: It's becoming more of a path for this role because are full-time positions research. And some of them are [00:09:00] more challenging. I do more learning support now in a lot of the other roles are more emotional support roles and some of them our self-contained classrooms with multi disability or autism, and they, they're all wonderful and they're serving a, a great purpose.

But I feel that I just, I love working with students that have learning disabilities and more in the learning, support environment.

Emily: So being part-time, does that work-life balance work for you? Do you feel like you have some schedule flexibility or is it pretty. Do you set what days and what hours you'll work and you don't have as much choice in that?

Michelle: It is set days. Everybody, whether they're part-time or full-time, we have days and hours that are set. We have our school week, we have the time, so we have to be there the difference between a part-time employee and a full-time employee is a half an hour.

That is their only difference

Emily: What. 

Michelle: or something it's something, it's like a half an hour that they get.

I mean, you're [00:10:00] just looking at this like, okay, yeah, they get extra, or maybe it's an extra hour. I mean, it is

something that. It's very small for, for what the difference is.

But and no, we have a really good work life balance. And the school that I work for, they're very understanding if you're taking a sick day, they're very understanding if you have to leave early or if you're just if you need something, they're, they're wonderful for doing that.

Emily: Oh, that's so nice I imagine that's somewhat administrative specific, 

Michelle: Yeah. And no weekends and no evenings as well and a lot of the teachers I work for, they're, they're compensated more. It's certainly not enough. And they're the ones that are bringing work home and they're the ones that just have a lot of stuff that they do in addition to the school day.

Emily: Summer's off.

Michelle: Yeah. Summer's off.

Emily: Nice. Walk me through your average day.

Michelle: Well, my average day is I will come into work and we usually have our schedule that we work with, and [00:11:00] it, it changes from every school year and sometimes it even changes Based on student need throughout the day. So typically I would go into a classroom regular ed.

Sometimes it could be a learning support room, and I will go in and I'll just help whatever the student needs, whatever the teacher needs, we'll go. Sometimes it's just redirecting a student. Okay, pay attention. Take your earbuds out. Sometimes it's that, other times it might be helping a student that just doesn't get what the teacher is saying.

It can be reading tests to a student that that day they have a test that they don't understand. Sometimes it's walking them to the nurse's office or to the principal's office. Something's going on. Other times it's doing clerical duties just like making copies for somebody putting up a bulletin board.

And we do that all day. We just help out and, and eventually, sometime in the middle we get lunch and then it's back at helping out students throughout the day.

Emily: Ah, [00:12:00] that sounds interesting. I mean, a different every day, new every 

Michelle: yeah. 


Emily: how do you view the prospects for people entering this field right now? Is there a lot of demand for paraeducators or are there plenty of jobs to go around, would you say?

Michelle: We are definitely always looking for people. I can say that. We are always needing somebody to come in just to be an extra set of hands because it's just the teacher can't be everywhere and can't do everything all at once. So we're always even subs. I mean, it's hard to find people to fill in if we're not there for a day, but there's definitely a need to do that.

Emily: Yeah. So what are some things you love about your job? Especially if you think it's something people might not expect, but it can be expected too.

Michelle: What I love about my job is feeling like I make a difference in the life of a student. And I think it's so amazing we're going to be going back to work in the fall. And I think when we see a student that comes in in [00:13:00] September and they're, I. They have a disability and they're really afraid to ask for help.

Or I'm going over spelling words with them and they think, I'm never gonna get this. And then you start seeing the progress. We go over, this is how you advocate. And then they're able to do that and we'll go over spelling words and they, they might be a little hesitant at the beginning of the week and fighting me on it, but then when they take that test, they'll come and say, I got an eight outta 10, or I got a perfect.

uh, story? Yeah. Yeah, exactly. one other story that really stuck out from last year about that progress was in the beginning I had to go organize this girl's backpack and there was papers everywhere and she's the sweetest thing ever, but, I was helping her.

Okay. I'm like, all right, we're marking extra papers, math, science, English. we're organizing all these things. And we did that for quite some time. And then it was around, I think it was around April, she came up to me and she goes, how do you spell extra? And she was organizing her [00:14:00] own backpack and making her own folders up.

And I just think you take a student from that beginning of the year with that messy backpack and doesn't have a way of organizing it. And then they get to the last semester and they have all the tools and they know how to do it.

Emily: Oh man, that's beautiful. not to take this negative too quickly, but is there anything that's tough about it that you either didn't expect at all or you didn't anticipate how challenging it would be?

Michelle: I think sometimes the demographics can be really tough. Some of our students come from some really hard home situations and sometimes they bring a lot of that into the classroom and what. Looks like a kid that isn't paying attention or is trying to really be make, make your life, you think, oh, they're trying to really make my day hard, and they're really not.

They're experiencing what, what is going on? So sometimes we have to go up and regard that with compassion and then just try to get the full story of what is happening.

Emily: Yeah, they're not [00:15:00] giving you a hard time. They're having a hard time. 

Michelle: Yes, they're having a hard time. We're we're there to support them.

Emily: Oh gosh. Yeah, I can imagine. So looking ahead, what do you wanna be doing more of in the next five to 10 years, either with, you know, your working as a paraeducator or with your blog or writing?

Michelle: I definitely still wanna be working with students in some capacity. I would love to continue on with my blog. That's definitely a goal of mine to expand that, to keep on writing more articles. And get some more speaking engagements. I would definitely also love to talk to other students about having a learning disability and that it's okay to have that and just to give them some tools as well.

Emily: Yeah. Oh, that's beautiful. So this is my last question and then I wanna make sure we leave time so you can tell people how to find you. But what's one piece of advice generally about work? Work that you would give your younger self.

Michelle: The piece of advice I'd give my younger [00:16:00] self about work is you are going to find the job that you like and you're gonna be able to use your passions not only to help yourself, but you're going to make a difference in the lives of other people.

Emily: Oh my gosh. That's probably a message we could all use to our younger self, I think. So Michelle, I loved talking with you. Can you tell us where people can find your blog and more about the work that you do? And I'll make sure that it's all in the show notes too.

Michelle: Awesome. You can find me at Michelle's I have disability articles and photography on there as well. And there's a forum where we have different topics about having a disability and there's even a little store where you can purchase some prints and some journals and some other things With my photography.

I also have a book that's on Amazon. I had three stories published in an anthology called Rediscovering Your Story, and you can find, you can purchase that on Amazon. And I'm also on Facebook and [00:17:00] Instagram.

Emily: Thank you so much for sharing that and I just really appreciate your time talking today. This was really fun. 

Michelle: Oh, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

 Thanks for joining me. If you liked the show, please rate and review on iTunes and Spotify. And please share with a friend. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, or ticktock. And if you'd like to be interviewed here or there's a particular job you'd like to learn about, please reach