Working with Paraeducators in the Classroom
By: Dr. Jennifer Cooper Scott
During our weekly podcasts I have discussed a variety of topics relating to both special education and general education. Today I want to discuss in the blog working with paraeducators in your classroom. Not everyone has the opportunity to have an extra set of hands in your room but if you do there are some very important do’s and don’ts that I learned the hard way. Now if you have listened to my other podcasts you know that I keep it real and this one will be no different! These topics need to be discussed! I started out as a paraeducator in a life skills classroom so some of this knowledge and experience comes from that and the other part comes from being a special education teacher that worked with paras in the classroom. Keep in mind this is not the end all to be all, but I just wanted to share some personal insight into a subject that I have seen on social media the last couple of weeks!
Some educators find it easy to work and manage other staff in the classroom, while others find it a difficult part of the job. Now do not get upset with the word manage, we are all managed in one way or another and we all must answer to somebody.
In the classroom, the teacher is the manager of the classroom and will need to be able to handle the students and other staff in the classroom. Now how do you do this and maintain a good working relationship with everyone on your team? Notice I said team! Even though there has to be one person in charge, it is still a team!
First and foremost, always and I mean ALWAYS treat others with respect. This goes both ways and we have all heard the age-old term you must give respect to earn respect! Now this does not always work but as a teacher in the classroom you need to always show respect.
Second, even before school starts you need to set expectations. I do not mean go into your classroom like a drill sergeant and demand everyone listen to you. I mean go in there and sit down and have a meeting with everyone and talk about what your classroom expectations are for the year.
With these expectations here are some examples that I have seen on Facebook lately or have dealt with myself as a teacher.
1) No cell phones during instructional time – I have seen this as one of the biggest issues in a variety of classrooms. Simply state that during instructional time we are here for the students and the cell phones need to remain on vibrate and put away. Also be flexible enough to know that we are all human too and sometimes life happens and the need to answer the phone might be necessary! The key here is to communicate with each other! Be respectful but communicate!!
2) Computers – some campuses that I have been on supplied laptops to their staff. This again is like the cell phones and one should not be on Facebook during instructional time. Remember we are here for the students!
3) Communication – this is key in any industry you work in. Be able to communicate with each other about students, what is going in the classroom, what is going on when the teacher is not there (example is when you take a student to a general education class) and when you are going to be absent! This goes both ways! Some paras get very anxious when the teacher is going to be out. Be respectful and let them know. Now paras, some teachers also get very anxious when their paras are going to be out – communicate with your teacher so they can prepare! If you work with multiple paras in a class set up a group message or a group text so that everyone can prepare, and everyone is on the same page. I cannot express enough how important communication is. And not just any communication but respectful communication!
4) It’s not my job – here is a biggie in my book! We are hired to work with students, all of us are so let’s do that! One of the biggest and most important things I learned in my corporate career before I became a teacher is that It is my job! Now this is not to say that you should get run over and everyone expects you to do everything by yourself. That is not what I am saying. When it comes to taking care of the students, it is your job! There is such a variety of classrooms that I could go on about this all day! But to save time, let me just give you a few examples! If you are in a self-contained classroom it is everyone’s job to sit with and educate the students! In my last classroom we did zone teaching and the para had her zone, which she sat in everyday and would do the lessons I had created for her while I sat in a zone and did my lessons for my group and then the students would rotate. This kept the classroom well organized and running smoothly. Did we have down time – yep sometimes but we had things to do and she knew what she needed to do with the kids! It is everyone’s job to make sure the students with more significant needs are taken care – including rest rooming and feeding. Please do not leave it up to one person to take care those students with significant needs. They will burnout and that will cause a whole other list of issues. Create a schedule and rotate staff to assist with student needs. Remember even though you are the teacher, your responsibility is to all the students and you should not ask a para to do anything that you wouldn’t or haven’t already done. If you are in an inclusion classroom, take the initiative to make sure data collection is done and done on time. Resource teachers are relying on you since they cannot be in every class during every period! Ok, I could go on and on about this all day as I stated earlier. Just remember why we are all here – OUR STUDENTS! Keep the attitude IT IS MY JOB! How would you feel if this was YOUR child in the classroom??
5) Written expectations – This has also been a big topic on several Facebook groups – a paraeducator handbook. For some paras it is a great idea and they appreciate having everything down in writing so they can refer to it. I love this idea so that everyone is on the same page. Remember communication is the key to a successful classroom. If you are a para please don’t take offense to the handbook, it is not designed to degrade anyone only to communicate and assist with classroom expectations! If you are a teacher, please keep your version respectful! Remember our paras are our right hand and it is difficult to find paras!
Now that we have discussed just a few expectations, and this is in no way an all-inclusive list! Let’s discuss some more difficult topics regarding working with paraeducators in the classroom.
Let’s all be real here and we all know that paraeducators do not get paid what they are worth. In my opinion this is a huge issue that the states need to recognize and see as an issue. They are just as important in the classroom and need a livable wage. Keep this in mind when you are working with a para. Show appreciation! My paras got thanks throughout the year. A simple thank you works wonders, but we often get so busy as teachers and all the responsibility that we have put on us that sometimes we forget to say it! Paras please don’t take offense to that, remember your teachers have a lot on their plates as well. Teachers, here are some ways that you can give your thanks!
1) Find out their favorite drink – coffee, tea, water and surprise them with it!
2) Find out their favorite food and buy them lunch one day!
3) A card with a thank you in it
Now we all know that teachers spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for their classroom supplies and maybe you cannot afford to buy them anything. Here are a couple ideas of ways that you can say thank you without purchasing anything. Please check with your campus on these though to make sure they are ok. My last administrator was all about supporting each other and was wonderful with these ideas!
1) You take the kids to their out class and give the para a break during that time
2) You take the kids to lunch and let the para have extra time for lunch
3) Set up a rotation that includes some individual time and allow the para to take a walk or grab an extra soda throughout the day
There are so many variations to this and it would be hard to discuss them all. Be creative! Listen to what their needs are and …you guessed it COMMUNICATE!
So what do you do if you have a difficult para in your classroom, you’ve done all that you can to communicate, you’ve discussed the multitude of issues individually with that person, and still you are not seeing any changes. This is a hard topic to discuss because sometimes you do everything that you can, and nothing works. It is just not a good fit or match in your classroom setting. Unfortunately, this happens, and you need to involve your administration. Your administrator can be a mediator and sit down with both of you to work these things out. And be prepared that maybe the only thing that does work is switching staff. Not everyone is made to work together, and you have to find the right fit, the right personalities in the room, and staff that can work together with the same goals in mind. It happens, don’t take it personally! Discuss it with all involved, make a decision that is best for everyone, and move on. I am not saying that this will cure everything, but it is a step that will need to happen. Sometimes paras get burnout working with the same staff every year! It is ok! It is good for them to rotate between staff members. But again, the key is…. You guessed it COMMUNICATION!
I hope that I have given some good insight from both the perspective of the paraeducator and from the teacher side of things! Good luck and peace be with you! I would love to have you on my Facebook group, The ABC’s of Special Education at https://www.facebook.com/groups/475460453216023/
About the Writer
Dr. Jennifer Cooper Scott is an enthusiastic, dynamic, and dedicated educator and author with over five years of experience as a Special Education Teacher. She is passionate and committed to safeguarding and advocating for the education and well-being of students at all levels as well as advocating and mentoring teachers. Her expertise provides a track record of excellent curriculum/course design and development and the facilitation of exemplary instruction to students of varying backgrounds and learning needs. She is an expert in the fields of special education, organizational leadership, and teacher burnout. Dr. Scott brings exceptional interpersonal and intrapersonal skills with a wealth of experience building partnerships to colleagues, parents, and scholars.
Dr. Scott’s dissertation research was on the Factors of Burnout among secondary special education teachers. The burnout issue is a definite struggle among special education teachers as well as for school districts in terms of retention. She created a Facebook group called The ABC’s of Special Education where she shares a variety of information regarding special education. She has also published a book called The ABC’s of Special Education which will be available beginning Sept 7th. The book discusses the burnout factors that were discovered in the research and how you can determine whether you are experiencing burnout as well as additional topics that may relate to burnout such as a lack of administrator support, paperwork, and behavior in the classroom. The book is designed to assist new and seasoned teachers in developing and maintaining their sense of worth as teachers. It is also the hope that this workshop will inspire teachers to remain in the profession as it helps them navigate the uncertainty and demands of the profession.