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Tips for Working With Classroom Aides

(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways for teachers and aides to work together?

There are 3.2 million teachers in U.S. K-12 schols today.  And there are also over 500,000 aides (also known as paraprofessionals) who work in instruction, primarily in early education, with students who have special needs, and with English-language learners.

This series will explore the most effective ways that teachers and aides (paraprofessionals) can work collaboratively....

Today, Rita Platt, Michele Morgan, Rachel Wright, and Dennis Griffin Jr. offer their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rita and Michele on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Four "tips"

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

Paraprofessionals (aides) are often the lifeblood of the school. This year, my first as a principal, I wrote the following email to the paras who I have the pleasure of working with. 

"Welcome to the new year! I am so grateful to have each of you on our team. I truly think that paras are the backbone of a school. You can see things that teachers can't. You know the kiddos in a different way. You have tight relationships with the kids who need us most. There is no way to overvalue the contribution you make. In many ways, paras are the heart of the school. In my perfect world, you would earn three times what you currently get each paycheck. That is beyond my control (except as an advocate, and believe me, I will advocate at the local, regional, and national levels). In the meantime, please let me know how I can be helpful to you. I truly want to support you as a person and an educator."

Often paras work with the most difficult students, have the most challenging schedules, get little respect, and for their efforts, they often do not make a living wage. This is a shortsighted shame. I believe that all educators must speak up for paras and support them. Below are my suggestions for helping paras be successful and feel appreciated. 

Tips for working with classroom aides or paraprofessionals. 

  1. Never forget they play an important role. Go out of your way to be kind to paras. Again, they work hard. A latte, a kind word, and a pat on the back can go a long way. Sometimes we get so busy that it's easy to forget to tell people just how much we appreciate them. Be intentional about remembering. Write it on your calendar if you need to, just don't forget to reach out to paras with kindness. 

  2. Communicate constantly. If we want strong, successful working relationships with paras that are likely to increase student achievement, we have to make the time to communicate. I have often seen strained relationships between teachers and paras that stem from continuing misunderstandings. Explicitly share your expectations for the para. For example, be clear on what work you would like done, what  a para should do when sh/e has "free time," how you would  like paras to work with students, and what the rules are for their communication with a student's family.  Be honest. Too many times I have seen relationships between educators crumble because one doesn't like something the other does but never is assertive enough to bring it up to her/him. It is far better to "confront with care" than to let irritations fester until relationships are shattered.

  3. Offer professional development.  Spring for a working lunch! Take the para you work with out for lunch or stay at school and eat pizza together. Use the time to collaborate or to provide training. If you want a classroom or school initiative to succeed, paras must be on board and have the knowledge needed to make them work. Share articles and videos. The vast majority of paras I have worked with truly want to do what is best for the school. If you offer them intermittent, meaningful links to helpful videos and articles, you might be surprised at the difference it can make.

  4. Listen to paras and insist that students do as well. Recognize that paras often know certain students and their needs better than we do. That knowledge is invaluable. Paras have information, ideas, and strategies to share, and we'd do well to listen to them. Similarly, insist that students treat paras with respect. In my school, I often remind students, "We hire the best adults possible to help you learn. Every single adult here will be accorded respect and care." A student would no sooner backtalk to a para than she would a teacher. There is no distinction.

For me, the big idea when working with paras is gratitude. I am so grateful for all they willingly give to make every day great. For more, read The Power of the Para on MiddleWeb.

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Support "your paras'!

Michele Morgan has been writing IEPs and behavior plans to help students be successful for 16 years.  She is a national-board-certified Teacher, an elementary special education coordinator for the Granite school district, and a Utah Teacher Fellow for Hope Street Group. She believes being a teacher is the most effective way to give back to the community and promote meaningful change.  Follow her @MicheleTMorgan1:

Teaching small groups, managing behavior, and troubleshooting classroom technology all at the same time can become overwhelming and stressful for teachers.  Thank heaven for paras!  Without their help, a busy classroom can turn into a chaotic place.  In 16 years as an educator, I have found that I rely heavily on the paras in my building to help me stay sane and organized.  However, the turnaround rate for paras is high.  It is hard to find and keep good paras in the classroom. They don't get paid a lot, and often, they are thrown into their jobs on the first day with little or no training.  So how can you make sure your paras feel appreciated and confident in their jobs?  Here are a few tips to help you work effectively with your paras:

  1. Give your paras important school information.  Your paras need to know the school bell schedule, the lunch schedule, and your classroom schedule.  They need to know what your school's positive reinforcement plan is and what your schoolwide expectations are.  Paras help teachers and administrators reinforce appropriate behavior, and they will be more effective if they receive training in schoolwide procedures and expectations. 

  2. Use paraeducator standards and handbooks as training materials.  Many states have standards for paraeducators, as well as handbooks to help paras develop important skills.  Check your state education website and see if these materials are available.  Print them out and keep copies in your classroom.  Review specific sections of the handbook with your paras often. 

  3. Sign your paras up for professional development and classes offered through your district.   In many districts, paras can earn an increase in salary for attending classes and obtaining additional training.  Good paras are always looking for opportunities to learn new skills, and as they receive opportunities, they will be more successful in working with students.  They will also feel more valued and appreciated. 

  4. Manage a daily communication system. Tell your paras what constitutes an emergency in your classroom. When should they interrupt your teaching, and when it is acceptable to leave you a note?  Tell them which students have IEPs and 504 plans and what kind of help those students need.  Let them know if you have students on behavior-intervention plans and how to support those students. Make sure your paras understand student information is confidential! If possible, try to set aside 15 minutes per week to meet with your paras to let them know about new students, classroom changes, assemblies, days off, etc.  Dedicating a set amount of time each week to talk with your paras can go a long way in helping things stay organized.

  5. Give feedback and address problems quickly.  If your para is having a problem with work performance, schedule a time to meet with them and be direct and honest about the issue. Take notes! Encourage them to set goals to improve and give them specific feedback so they know how they are doing.  

  6. Recognize the good work they do! Every once in a while, write them a note and thank them for their help.  If they work well with a hard-to-manage student, or complete a difficult job, ask your administrator to personally recognize them in a faculty meeting.  Make a big deal about them, because they are a big deal!

Paras work hard because they want to be in our schools, helping our students.  They don't do it for the money.  By making sure paras get the training, support, and communication they need, we can help them feel valued and happy at school.

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"Three practices that are critical for an effective teacher-aide relationship"

Rachel Wright has been teaching elementary school since 2014. She is a Utah Teacher Fellow with the Hope Street Group, working to elevate the voice of educators and work with policymakers to enhance education for Utah's students. The opinions expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter at @UtahRach:

In my five years as a teacher, I have experienced both successful and not-so-successful relationships with classroom aides. During my second year teaching (my first with an aide), I had a notably unproductive and frustrating relationship with one particular classroom assistant. Each evening, I would complain tearfully to my husband about her performance and perceived lack of motivation. Upon further and—ahem—brutally honest reflection, however, I recognized my role in creating the strained relationship. Despite being the leader of the classroom, I had underestimated three practices that are critical for an effective teacher-aide relationship: strong organization, clear communication, and explicit expectations. 

Strong organization is important in all aspects of teaching, including the dynamic between teacher and aides. When I was a new teacher, I floundered with organizing my own day-to-day schedule. In retrospect, it was unreasonable for me as a teacher to expect organization from my aide without setting the example and providing a framework. Now, I prioritize organization to help the various aides who help in my classroom throughout the day. Each individual has a personalized folder with the week's focus activity and notes written down for them. I make myself available for clarification, but most days run smoothly without wasted learning time—as long as I have done my part in organizing. 

Clear communication is a skill teachers practice in each and every lesson when working with children. It can be easily overlooked, however, when communicating with aides. There exist a myriad of reasons for breakdowns in communication: assumptions about an aide's background knowledge, ever-changing learning targets, and time constraints. In the past, I assumed that my aide either already knew or did not need to know the why of her work with students. Learning from that mistake on my part, I now make an effort to communicate the goal and focus of each learning activity to the aide. 

Explicit expectations help everyone succeed. If an individual knows what is expected of them, they can work to make it happen. Even in my role as a teacher, it helps to have explicit expectations from my administration on what I can do to be successful in my classroom. Reflecting on my early career, I did not always offer clear expectations to my aide on any given day. Now, I find the practice critical to success. For example, rather than stating a general expectation of the aide to "review long-vowel sounds," I provide a general breakdown of how the small group should go. I may have typed up a schedule for the day: 5 minutes of whiteboard review using our curriculum materials as a guide, followed by 10 minutes of a prepared game, and ending with a check for understanding to be returned to me for monitoring. A clear starting and ending point helps the aide's activity go smoothly and maximizes student learning.  

By focusing on these three traits in myself and implementing best practices in my classroom, I have established much stronger working relationships with my aides. In the end, our students benefit greatly from the growth and learning made possible by a successful teacher-aide relationship. 

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"We are all educators"

Dennis Griffin Jr. serves as the principal of Brown Deer Elementary School in Wisconsin. He has seven years of experience as a middle school educator and is entering his sixth year as an administrator. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in educational leadership at Cardinal Stritch University. Dennis believes all students will be successful in school when they develop relationships with educators that value their gift, cultures, and individuality:

Collaboration that is built upon mutual trust and transparency is key to any working relationship. The very first thing that I have always acknowledged in my classroom/school is that we are all educators. Don't get me wrong, I honor degrees and years served; however, I have witnessed many educational assistants go above and beyond in ensuring the success of students that were in their care.

When adults are seen as equals within the classroom. it creates a different culture and level of respect in the eyes of students. I recall being an educator and a principal and hearing a student say, "I do not have to listen to you because you are not the teacher." To be honest, I have even heard teachers say the exact same words to the "educational assistant." I have always made it a point to address this topic immediately on behalf of all parties because we are aligned by a vision and not by position. When this is the foundation of our relationship, we are able to engage in learning with and from one another. This level of collaboration infused with a sense of "Humble Inquiry" enhances the ability for our students to be successful.  

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Thanks to Rita, Michele, Rachel, and Dennis for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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