Support staff members (a.k.a. Paraprofessionals, Paraeducators, Teaching Assistants, etc…) are some of the most underutilized members of the education community. There are a few reasons for this, possibly the most critical being the lack of training offered to assist them in increasing their effectiveness.
In some states, paraprofessionals are required to have a certification or license, but there are states that require only a high school diploma. In states where assistant teachers are required to have an associate’s degree, many have degrees in things only loosely related to education.
Although educational history truly does not make or break an aide, it’s important to recognize that support staff members come with varying degrees of understanding of their role in the classroom. Furthermore, many teachers and administrators are unclear on the roles of paraeducators which makes offering them guidance even more challenging.
It is not only beneficial but crucial that these members of the education team receive more investment in the area of training and professional development. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of training available. Many paraprofessionals only know what their jobs are from asking other paraprofessionals. Few are given adequate on-the-job training, and far fewer are even told what their responsibilities are other than following a schedule.
In addition, these staff members hold such a variety of jobs that it’s often difficult to pin down exactly what they need training on and how to provide that.
We found a few resources, namely books, to share to get the ball rolling, and we’ll be on the lookout for more in the future.
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A good working relationship is like a marriage or a deep friendship. It takes a long time to develop, and it takes a lot of work from everyone involved. It’s worth the investment, but it’s not easy for anyone.
If you don’t have time to delve into the following resources before you need some sort of intervention or guidance, here are 4 quick tips to enhance any relationship between classroom teachers and paraprofessionals:
1. Take Time to Communicate
Time is one of the most valuable, yet least available commodities in education. You really have to make time to communicate. Don’t just talk about the students, either. Be sure you share your general expectations and listen to your colleagues’ as well.
Sometimes communicating face-to-face about daily routines and students isn’t possible or practical. Whenever you can, use checklists, communication clipboards, and other forms of record-keeping so everyone working with a student can be on the same page.
This will also free up the talk-time you need to be able to communicate about things that really need to be spoken about face-to-face to avoid misunderstanding or miscommunication.
Focus on Problem Solving
We all need to vent now and again. Everyone has a bad day occasionally and just needs to blow off steam. Unfortunately, the slope from “venting” to “toxic negativity” can be a slippery one.
Spill your frustrations and talk about whatever the root of the problem is from your perspective, but do yourself a favor and stop complaining after about two minutes, or when you find yourself repeating the things you’ve already said. Once you get to that point, it’s time to switch gears and focus on how to solve the problem.
It’s tempting to feel powerless to promote change in education, especially if you are just a small cog in a big system, but there are always things we can control. The key is to work with your colleagues to brainstorm and be creative in finding ways to make things work for everyone.
Recognize the Ambiguity
There are often many things in the teacher/paraprofessional relationship that are undefined because each relationship is unique. Don’t be afraid of that ambiguity.
Teachers should recognize that paraprofessionals need direction, want to be told what is required of them, and need to be validated in their understanding of what they’re told. If things are unclear, clarify them. Take the initiative to ask specifically for what is needed and wanted.
Sometimes it feels counterintuitive to take time from working with students to communicate with paraprofessionals because it can be faster to just do some things yourself rather than explaining them.
However, you are one person. In today’s educational environment, it is truly impossible to do your job without assistance. You need to “multiply” yourself. That means taking the time to explain in detail what you want and need from paras.
Paraprofessionals must realize that teachers, especially those in general education, don’t receive a lot of training (if any) on how to instruct or manage colleagues and other adults. It’s just as intimidating for them to have someone walk into their classroom and ask for something to do as it is for the paraprofessional to do the asking.
If you need clarification, say so. You aren’t stepping on toes or bothering a teacher when you clarify what they want you to do. That’s part of your job, and teachers should know that even if they haven’t been trained on how to guide you.
Respect Your Journey
Both paras and teachers need to know that if you don’t get it right the first, third, or twenty-second time, try again. No one expects you to be perfect overnight! Everyone involved has to learn how to communicate in this particular relationship. Sometimes that happens quickly and easily, and sometimes it’s slow and a bit painful.
Work hard to make everyone involved feel included and important. Be kind to each other. Work to find solutions that benefit everyone, and never give up. With a good professional attitude, you can solve any problem that comes your way, especially if you work together.
Professional Development Books
This book is filled with practical, hands-on ideas for support staff working directly with students and teachers. It’s filled with ways to stay organized, help students with behavioral issues, and facilitate learning in a variety of situations.
It’s written by two experienced educators who have been in the classroom performing a variety of jobs, including working both teachers and paraeducators. They’ve shared their own collective wisdom along with things they’ve learned from other support staff members along the way.
The authors say the book is meant as a “buffet”, with time spent “dipping” into each subject presented. There are worksheets available within the book itself for time spent in self-reflection, and blank spaces are provided so that the paraeducator can keep relevant notes within the section to which they pertain.
We love this book because it has a companion book for professional staff members as well (Effective Strategies for Working With Paraeducators by the same authors).
This book is specifically for those working in the special education classroom and environment but can be useful for any age level.
The authors have a whole system set up and they provide many services that train and help paraeducators in the special education classroom. It’s a nationwide program that has been successfully implemented by quite a few districts, so the research and methods are considered valid and practical.
Another added bonus is that their website offers some free printable templates and tools that can be used alongside the text.
by Kent Gerlach (Author)
This book is a practical guide for everyone involved in the paraeducator’s career. It’s useful for opening lines of dialogue as individuals within the school seek to define the role of paraeducators.
The author is a long-time speaker and consultant in the world of education from the paraeducator’s perspective. He’s well versed in many areas addressed by special education, which makes this practical guide especially helpful for those paraprofessionals in the special education department.
Because this book addresses the roles of the paraeducator, teacher, and principal, this is an excellent conversation starter and guide for meetings with each of those roles represented. While many of the suggestions are practical and possibly even predictable, having them all recorded in one place is useful for defining what is important for each particular group or school.
by Will Henson Psy.D. (Author)
Student behavior is one of the most challenging aspects of a paraprofessional’s job. Students with challenging behavior are often the ones who are most in need of academic intervention.
On the other hand, the nature of most paraeducator roles requires them to spend less time building relationships with individual students than classroom teachers, so there is little time or opportunity for them to gain the respect often needed to correct challenging behaviors.
This book facilitates the understanding of the student’s perspective and explains some of the common disabilities and psychological issues students may be dealing with to give the educator a background for reasoning with them.
In addition, it provides valuable information on how to create and maintain professional boundaries, de-escalate situations that create opportunities for violent behaviors, and ways to collaborate to address negative behaviors in a relationship-nurturing way.
Although this book is written specifically for paraprofessionals, it would be an excellent addition to the library of anyone who works with students.
If you are a paraeducator and haven’t found this goldmine, today is your lucky day! This site has virtually everything you need. There are conferences, there’s a news blog for information pertinent to paraeducators, and resources organized by state.
NRCP also utilizes Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, so you can find them there as well.
Many school districts use CPI for the special education classroom, but paraeducators who work outside of that umbrella may not receive any training in that area. Regardless, the CPI website has free resources for anyone working in education. These resources are useful for keeping staff members and students safe by helping them learn to de-escalate high-risk situations.
CPI services are for a large variety of vocations, so you’ll have to use the filters to specify that you’re looking for materials for those working in education.
This blog post from their site is an excellent place to start: https://www.crisisprevention.com/Blog/June-2016/paraprofessionals