Ridgefield’s Paraeducator of the Year is expert at forming ‘individualized connections’ with students

Danbury resident Lisa Laber was named Ridgefield schools' Paraeducator of the Year for the 2021-22 academic year. She has been a paraeducator since 2005 and worked in Ridgefield since 2019.

Danbury resident Lisa Laber was named Ridgefield schools' Paraeducator of the Year for the 2021-22 academic year. She has been a paraeducator since 2005 and worked in Ridgefield since 2019.

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RIDGEFIELD — When Danbury’s Lisa Laber began working as a school paraeducator in 2005, she did so because the role dovetailed perfectly with her own sons’ elementary school schedules.

Laber, who was recently named Paraeducator of the Year for Ridgefield Public Schools, now considers her career much more of an aspiration rather than a job. Laber works with special education students at Ridgefield High School — a position that requires dedication, patience and an ability to develop a strong bond with the kids she helps teach.

“The job can be very challenging, but I find it quite rewarding at the same time,” said Laber, who works in the high school’s Ridgefield Intensive Special Education (RISE) program. “It’s wonderful that I work with a great team of fellow paraeducators and teachers. Everyone is supportive and together, we form a strong team.”

Paraeducators were once more commonly known as teacher’s aides or tutors. The latter is what they were called in Danbury when Laber began working there in 2005. She began working for Ridgefield High School in 2019.

“Lisa is one of those paras who knows how to take the reins once you hand them to her,” noted RISE teacher Adam Robertson. “Every morning, she makes sure to not only say hi to everyone, but she clearly makes time to make it more than just a formality. She genuinely cares about every person — adult or student — and maintains strong personal connections with everyone. This is the entire cornerstone to special education: individualized connections with people.”

Laber works one-on-one with a student who will be a high school senior in the fall. She usually spends the entire school day with her student and a small group, coaching them through their studies.

“We’re either working in the RISE room or in mainstream classes,” she said. “When it is time I bring my student to the gym for a workout routine. I coach him through it, motivating him particularly if he stops at any point.”

This is where the “patience” trait really pays off. While many people might get exasperated if a student fails to stay focused on a particular task, people in Laber’s role are adept at remaining positive and using calm, neutral voice patterns. This is the most effective way to get students to complete their tasks and work hard, she said.

“All of the RISE students have an individual education plan, or IEP, which explains whether they require one-to-one adult support to assist with daily instruction. Not all of them do,” she explained. The students in the RISE program have a wide range of strengths and weaknesses.

Laber has a history of forming strong bonds with both the students she assists and their parents. In Danbury, she worked one-on-one with one student for 11 consecutive years, from age 9 through his completion of the post-high school program at age 21.

“My student was nonverbal and also had cerebral palsy,” she noted. “I was able to establish communication with him and I knew him inside and out. I would help him to eat his breakfast and lunch every day, and I knew the foods he liked and the ones he didn’t. When he completed the program, that’s when I decided to find a new role.”

Laber holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and credits that educational background with enabling her to excel in the paraeducational role. “It’s relevant, but not required,” she said.

“What I love especially about Ridgefield is its excellent training program,” she said. The program is called Advanced Instructional Paraeducational Training. Many paraeducators also meet once a month for training sessions. In addition, there’s a strong network among both paraeducators and teachers for advice and support.

“Each child is very different,” she said. “The paraeducator’s role is to support a student or students according to their individualized educational plan. Every child in the program has their own specific academic or behavioral needs, or both, and this is spelled out in the IEP.”

In the nomination process for the paraeducator award, administrators and colleagues alike had high praise for Laber’s abilities and professional demeanor. “She comes up with her own ways to help our students,” one wrote, “and speaks in a manner and tone that engages students in even their worst moments.”

Wrote another: “Her calm demeanor and steady presence sets a tone that is appreciated by all around her. She does not shy away from difficult tasks with students, always with a great attitude and no complaints.”

“If you've watched Lisa each day in my classroom as I have, it would be obvious as to why she is more than worthy of this award,” Robertson said. “RISE would certainly not be the same without her guidance.”