Being a teacher is not easy… I’m guessing we pretty much all agree on that.
But during my time substituting at the beginning of my teaching career, I began to notice another job with its own unique challenges… paraprofessionals. In fact, my days substituting for paras were some of the most demanding and exhausting of my entire teaching career.
As I moved along in my teaching journey, there was something else I began to notice…there seemed to be a level of tension among / between paras and teachers. It was hard to put my finger on, but I could tell something was wrong.
It was casual eye rolls. It was small passive aggressive comments made during passing. I heard frustration from teachers or paras who both seemed to be kind of frustrated about the same issues. (unclear expectations, little to no feedback/direction, overbearing, making each others jobs harder etc).
When I got my first teaching position, I had the amazing opportunity to have a paraprofessional assigned to my classroom on a daily basis. In the following few years, this trend continued as I had many students who received special education services (and boy was I glad to have the push in support available). Year after year, I began to ask the paras I worked closely with what their biggest gripes were, and I even asked tough questions about our own relationships. As I navigated this space, here are the 5 things that helped my classroom paraprofessionals and I to have a positive and productive year.
If I was looking to save the biggest idea for last, this would be it. I know that you’re probably busy and if this is the only point you read, I want you to read it loud and clear. It seems so simple, right? Of course we know that communication is key, but what does this mean in terms of the classroom environment? Does it mean hand the para a list of rules on the first day? (….I have friends who this has happened to)…probably not. What it can mean is a scheduled chat early on in the year about the roles you can both play in the classroom. It worked out best for me to do this after learning a little bit about my paras. I worked with an amazing woman one year who had a strong background and experience in early literacy. For my first graders, this was AMAZING! I asked questions about what she most enjoyed etc. and we sorted out roles for different times of the day. This was very much a give and take conversation “What do you think about working with -student a- on their sight word objective first thing when they arrive?” This helped to prevent either one of us from thinking the other had less of a work load, or was doing something counterproductive.
Unfortunately, one thing I learned early on is that in general, paraprofessionals are not offered the same professional development opportunities. For this reason, I always made an effort to share the things I learned with my classroom assistants when I returned. Then I’d share a plan to try some of the learning out and we’d see how it went… together.
This one really closely connects to the first tip, but planning together can help set day to day expectations and will give an opportunity for new ideas to enter the playing field!
As you already know, paraprofessionals are adult humans. They are people who want to be seen and heard. Whether it’s a small gesture of kindness, a sincere “thank you” or “good job” … or even a respectful interaction with parents, knowing that they are valued and appreciated is so valuable! After all, sometimes the teachers get the accolades for student achievement, and the support staff gets left behind, so be sure to go out of your way to share the praise.
PARAS ARE TEACHERS TOO-
Say it with me… Paras are teachers. Remember this during your discussions about students, during the lessons they teach… regardless of their backgrounds they are teachers. In fact, they are often the teachers spending the most time with our students requiring the highest levels of support. Respect them, listen to them, and appreciate them.