If your college education was anything like mine, your preparation for teaching involved little to no discussion about how to work collaboratively with a paraprofessional assigned to work with students in your mainstream classroom. In part it is because of this lack of training that in my second year of teaching, when I first had a para assigned to my room, that I had no idea what to do with him. He was there to help ensure that three EBD students stayed on task and behaved appropriately; for this reason, I just had him sit in the back of the room and watch his three EBD students. Yep, he just sat there... He sat there for about a month, and then he stopped me after class one day.
"Heather, I feel like all I do in your class is just sit and wait for behavior issues. Are there other things I could do to help?" he asked.
Yes, I thought, there are tons of things you can do to help. But where do I start? What is he allowed to do? I thought he could only help those three EBD kids...
So, I asked him, "Tony, what kinds of things would you like to do?"
Tony's honesty, combined with my simple follow-up question, began a collaborative relationship that I will never forget. He took small groups of students who were struggling with a task out into the hallway and worked with them one-on-one, he jumped into class discussions to provide perspectives that I did not have; he monitored students while they watched a film or did in-class reading so that I could have one-on-one discussions with students about missing work. We developed systems so that Tony could come in to the room at the start of the hour and know instantly what I was planning do that day and how he could help. We learned what made the other tick and soon became a well-oiled machine. Sure, there were times when Tony had to pause and deal with one of his three EBD students, but most of the time we worked together in a way that benefited all students, not just his three.
This experience with Tony led me to try and recreate it with other paras in the years that followed. After some trial and error, I finally stumbled upon a four part system that worked well for me and those paras with whom I collaborated.
A Shift in Perspective
I first needed to shift my own perspective. During class periods when a para was present, it was no longer my classroom--it was ours. We were working together on a shared focus: together we wanted to ensure that all students were successful. I just knew that I had to do the planning, or at least the bulk of it, because paras worked in multiple rooms with multiple teachers and had no prep period: by default, that made me the lead teacher, but it didn't mean a para couldn't assist. We needed to be a team, and that meant I had to see each para as an asset to my class as a whole, not just to the few students they served.
In order to work collaboratively, you need to have a way to communicate your vision and preferences with your paras while also providing a way for them to communicate the same with you. This is complicated by the fact that you likely share no open time together, so one-on-one communication is often out of the picture unless you can squeeze it in during the class hour. Therefore, you have to devise a way to communicate that works for you both. For me, this meant creating a survey that I would have paras complete at the start of a semester (shown and attached below): it opened the door toward clear communication.
Going hand-in-hand with communication is having a clear system for working together. For me, that meant having a "Para Box" on the back counter of my classroom that a para would check at the start of the period. Here I kept the agenda for the day with notes regarding what my para could do to assist, a stack of sticky notes so he could easily communicate concerns to me mid-period without having to verbally interrupt me, a notebook where he could leave notes at the end of the hour regarding things I needed to be aware of or ideas for the next day, and supplies that would likely be needed during the hour. Of course, the "Para Box" is not the only possible system--I have colleagues who send an email to their paras at the start of each day, who use a clipboard as a means to share plans and ideas, or who have a designated time and place during the class period where they verbally touch base about the class period. Any system, as long as you have one and it works for both you and your para, will help add clarity and enhance productivity.
Get to know each other
In the past when I struggled with a certain paraprofessional, it was often a result of clashing personalities. In these situations in particular, I found it ideal to shed a little light on what made each of us tick. There are many free, easy-to-take, online personality tests that can help a teacher and para better understand each other: I would occasionally use these with my paras. Each of us would take the survey and then share our result; this often opened up a dialogue between us that had been otherwise stilted. (If you wish to try it, my personal favorites are the DIRT Temperament Survey and the 16 Personalities self-assessment.)
This four part system helped me to collaborate with paraprofessionals over the past 17 years: by working together we bolstered student success. Prior to working together--during the month I just had Tony sit in the back of my classroom--my students weren't gaining much, if anything, from having a para in the room. Not to mention the fact that Tony was underutilized, often bored, and very unsure of his role.
Should you have any questions about how to collaborate more with your paras, please do not hesitate to reach out to me for more ideas and resources.
This post brought to you by Heather Lyke, Secondary Implementation Associate
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