In November, we said in this blog post that support staff (which also go by the titles paraprofessionals, para-educators, or teaching assistants, to name a few - and we’ll use them interchangeably) comprise one of the most underutilized resources in education.
One of the main reasons we’ve found this to be true is teachers are often given the task of working with an assistant but given no training, no information, and no help in how to do so.
Most teachers are comfortable creating tasks and assignments for students, but when it comes to telling adults what to do… well, there’s a reason we teach elementary, middle school, or high school age kids rather than working at a university.
There is very little help with what to do with this kind of relationship or how it should be dealt with.
We’re hoping to cut through some of the confusion and lay a pathway for some vertical dialogue to begin in schools and districts so that everyone involved can communicate about what exactly these valuable members of our school communities should be doing and what classroom teachers and administrators can do to help them achieve those goals.
First, know that many para-educators are just as professional as teachers are. They want to do a good job, they want to be effective, and they have sought this position to help children and teachers. They are not there to make your job or life harder. They truly want to be useful.
Secondly, they need direction. Most educators have not received as much training, had as much classroom experience, or had the educational background that teachers have - although that’s not always the case. One of our writers worked as an assistant and approached the job after over a decade and a half of teaching and had a Masters in Education. You never know!
However, para-educators with fewer experiences are looking to classroom teachers to lead them. They need you to treat them with respect, tell them what you want or need from them, and give them feedback so they know if what they are doing is what you want or not.
Condescension, taking them for granted, filling their time with “busy work” that doesn’t make any real difference, and giving them responsibilities above their pay grade are not appropriate ways to interact with them.
Remember to use your best manners. Treat them as though they will be your Superintendent someday, even if you think it’s unlikely. Be polite. Say please and thank you. Offer to give them a bathroom break, grab them a cup of coffee, or if you’re having a snack, offer to share if it’s something shareable.
You’ll be surprised what small things like common courtesy help transition an awkward relationship into a good working relationship. Always be on the lookout for those things that can help provide that “glue” you’ll need to face academic adversity together.
One other thing along the lines of respect: foster an environment of zero tolerance for negativity and gossip. Never talk about your assistant behind their back or say negative things about them to others. If you have a problem, address it with the assistant. If that doesn’t work, speak to your administrator. Do not involve other teachers or members of the staff.
This is just as much for your protection as it is for your paraprofessional’s.
When you have another adult in the room with you, it’s very easy to become paranoid. In high stakes academic environments, it can be very easy to feel fearful about making mistakes.
Mistakes will happen, though! They are some of the only things in life you can count on (other than death and taxes).
If you foster gossip and participate in it, you will always have the feeling that they are doing the same thing to you. Be very careful with what you say about others, and create a safe environment where mistakes are growth opportunities.
Also, there will be times when you and your assistant may need to vent. You’ll want to talk about how annoying a student is being or how a particular parent is just not being helpful by doing a student’s homework.
Talking about problems is important! You can’t solve problems unless you talk about them.
When you are talking through it, though, pay attention to your body’s cues. When you start to feel overwhelming anxiety or anger increase, it’s time to switch from complaining to problem-solving. It is important to lead by example.
Defining the Job
So what IS appropriate? Newer teachers (and sometimes experienced teachers) don’t even know what to ask for, and they kind of resent the fact that they have to find something for another adult to do when they’re barely able to tread water and keep themselves afloat most days. How can you make the most of this situation and help everyone?
A paraprofessional’s job, in many places, is not to sharpen pencils or file graded paperwork. There is confidential information they are not privy to. They are supposed to be working with the students but don’t always have the expertise they might need to do that.
Whether you are comfortable with it or not, whether you’ve asked for assistance or not, you have to know that this will occur eventually in your classroom. Part of your job, then, is to plan for when, not if, you have an assistant. Perhaps they’re already there, and you haven’t known what you need from them, and things are already awkward and off to a weird start.
Either way, your first priority needs to be to decide what you need.
You can easily do this by looking at your data.
What are your students most struggling with? What do they specifically need that is outside the realm of what you can provide because of time, the needs of other students, or other issues outside of your control?
Some paras are assigned to a specific student, while others (like pre-K aides) are assigned to the teacher. That greatly affects where you start with your search through data and listing what you need.
If they are assigned to a particular student, they are likely given some instruction from a special education teacher. In that case, you’ll need to meet with the other teacher to coordinate how to best work with the para to provide for the child’s needs.
Sometimes paras are assigned to a child but can help with anything while they are in the room. These are important things to know, so be sure you ask.
Other paras do pull-out or push-in for small groups of students. These paras generally look to the classroom teacher for instruction, guidance, and materials.
Once you’ve determined who the para-educator answers to and what your specific needs are, you need to prepare yourself to teach the para-educator what you want, how to accomplish any goals you may have, where your materials are that they will need, how to use the materials, and how to let you know if they need help or have questions.
Communication is KEY
You need to take time - possibly every day, especially in the beginning - to talk with your assistant. We mentioned in the companion blog for para-educators linked above that this relationship is kind of like an arranged marriage (for special education teachers, it’s more like a polygamous marriage because they have lots of assistants!).
You have to know each other well enough to communicate, sometimes without even speaking. That takes time and lots of talking in the beginning.
Find out what their strengths and weaknesses are. Ask your administrator why they put you together - they may have a lot of insight on how you balance each other out or how your abilities align. Ask for any information that they feel comfortable sharing about how the assistant has worked with other people who are similar to you in personality, communication style, and teaching style.
No matter who they’ve worked with and how similar they are to you, you won’t have the same relationship, of course, but sometimes you can avoid doing or saying things that have been frustrating for the assistant in the past and vice-versa.
Initially, before the two of you build any strong positive or negative ties, let them know what kind of things you really find helpful and what things are not at all okay with you. Ask them for the same. They may be a bit hesitant to share with you - it comes as a surprise to many teachers that paras view them as one of their supervisors (imagine telling your principal that the way he or she runs staff meetings is really annoying! lol).
However, because you’ll be working in such close proximity frequently, those are important conversations to have before there is a problem. Once you find yourself in a negative conflict, it’s much harder to work your way back to communication. It’s much better to front load those small irritations and to be upfront about any zero-tolerance policies than it is to allow it to damage your relationship later.
For example, if an assistant is floating from room to room each day, they may be working with one teacher who likes a very quiet classroom, another who is perfectly fine with noisy group work, and another who thrives on lively discussions. If you are the teacher who needs quiet, and the para is coming in from a noisy classroom, they may be functioning at a louder volume than you’re comfortable with and disturb your quiet unless you tell them beforehand that noise really bothers you.
If you’re the teacher who embraces loud discussions, you may find it incredibly annoying if the para tries to quiet your students down constantly. It’s important that your assistant knows what you expect from the students in addition to what you expect from the assistant themselves.
In addition, some teachers are very territorial when it comes to classroom management. They don’t want a paraprofessional to correct behaviors or help unless the para is asked to do so.
Conversely, there are teachers who see paraprofessionals as another set of adult eyes, ears, and hands. They welcome any help in any area. They may be frustrated if the para doesn’t correct behaviors. You have to be clear about what you hope to achieve by having the para work with you.
Most paraprofessionals are very careful not to overstep their bounds. They know that having another in your classroom is intimidating and uncomfortable. They don’t want you to be annoyed with them for doing too much or too little. Just communicating what you want and need, then reinforcing that when you see them doing it will help establish that open communication you really need.
For more information, there are several resources mentioned in our companion blog post for para-educators. Here’s that link again.