Saturday, September 29, 2007

Success with Paraprofessionals

Working with paraprofessionals were wonderful experiences for me and can be for you too. I hope my experiences and ideas will help teachers and paraprofessionals have a successful relationship. Some of these might not work for you so you might need to adjust these to fit your needs and personalities. I have had 7 paraprofessionals (male and female) over the years and loved working with all of them.

The main key to success is communication. The very first day we met, this is the first thing I pointed out. No matter what we were feeling, we would communicate with each other the good and the bad. Working as close together as we do, it is important that we talk to each other. As a teacher, I would make sure the paraprofessionals knew what I expected and why. If the paraprofessionals didn’t understand or disagreed, I was told privately and not in front of the students. Usually at the end of the day, we would spend about 15 minutes evaluating the day, talking about what worked and what didn’t.

Trust is important when you are working this closely with a person. I made it clear that I would keep them in the loop of what is going on around the classroom and the school. Sometimes teachers see paraprofessionals as a second class citizen and this is totally wrong. I treated my paraprofessionals as fellow colleagues in the workplace and insisted that other teachers and students treat them the same way.

I wrote out a list of duties for the paraprofessionals so it was clear what I needed. This helped at the beginning of the year as a checklist so I didn’t have to follow up behind.

I discussed my classroom expectations and rules with the paraprofessionals before the students every arrived. We would be like parents to the students and they will play us against each other every chance they could. We would explain to the class ahead of time that this would not work and that if they went to one adult after they were already told no, the consequences would be dire. We backed each other up in front of the students (even if we didn’t agree – which we would discuss later when students weren’t there).

I always asked if the paraprofessionals had any suggestions or ideas when I was planning for the next week or the next unit. Sometimes they may have a different perspective that could help with the lesson.

Sometimes I listed duties and we split them up. Many times the paraprofessionals were stronger in one aspect and enjoyed doing somethings that I didn’t. This meant less stress for me. I liked to focus on their strengths and use them in the way that benefitted all of us.

We discussed students and problems and how to handle behaviors. Sometimes there was just personality conflicts and luckily we didn’t feel the same way about the same students so a lot of times we split up the students so we could work with the ones we got along with best. This was not all of the time, but sometimes it helps the dynamics of the class.

I used my paraprofessionals as sounding boards, shoulders to cry on, and as a major player in my support system. I didn’t always have a paraprofessionals every year I taught so I really appreciated the times I had one. Unfortunately, I never had a class in college that prepared me for working with a paraprofessionals and I have heard from many others that they are in the same boat. If you have questions that I can answer, please feel free to ask away and I’ll try to help.

(Remember how earlier I mentioned that it was important to find your support system? Well, I'm taking a few days off to go hiking and camping in Shenandoah National Park to relieve some stress but I should be back on Friday. See you then!)


epeb said...

While I'm sure this wasn't meant to be demeaning to paraprofessionals, as you said, it did come across as if you don't think they are of your ability. My mother is a paraprofessional in an autistic classroom, and while the teacher employs many of these strategies, she doesn't write "out a list of duties for the [she] didn't have to follow up behind."

I was also bothered by the fact that the consequences for going to another adult after having been told no were "dire." I don't know what the intended effect of this word was, but it certainly doesn't set up an environment where students are comfortable going to paraprofessionals for help. These dire consequences come from the teacher, the chief control in the classroom, so it sets up an environment where the teacher is above the paraprofessionals, despite the fact that you said that's not the environment you are trying to achieve.

Paraprofessionals are an important part of a classroom, and I think that it is important to not recognize–especially in front of students--that they are any different than the teacher is. They have the same purpose, and I think that insisting upon respect for them creates a situation where the teacher is still above the paraprofessionals in the classroom. A more effective way of teaching students and other faculty members to respect paraprofessionals is simply to do so yourself. You said you valued their input, which is a great step, but it would be beneficial to show this to the students rather than telling them that this person is important and you should be respectful.

You said that you didn’t take a class in college to teach you how to deal with paraprofessionals, but as a secondary education student, I can safely say that you took some communications classes and learned how to deal with people. Paraprofessionals are people, first and foremost, and they deserve the respect that you advocate. I just don’t understand how you can say they deserve this respect and then speak of them as if they are a new species that you struggled to understand how to deal with.

I understand that each classroom experience and teacher is different, and if this classroom strategy worked for you, then I am glad it did and that you and the paraprofessionals in your classroom worked well together. It is not the experience I have had in my mother’s classroom, or in my own experience in regular classrooms, however, and I felt it would be helpful to other readers to know that sometimes suggested classroom strategies just won’t work in another environment, even if it is similar the writer’s classroom.

pittcrew2011 said...

I somewhat agree with epeb, however, in actual terms, paraprofessionals aren't of the specific academic background and certification that the teachers themselves are; if this were the case, they would be called teachers. That being said, this does not mean that they should be treated like "second class citizens" as you so stated, because in terms of a social situation or conflict, they can use the knowledge they have to react properly just as a teacher would.

I can see where the previous commenter would sense a bit of a condescending tone although I am quite sure this was not the intention, as you sound quite sincere about your relationships with your paraprofessionals. It seems that in order to obtain success in terms of this piece, the paraprofessional must know his/her place in the classroom as opposed to being a part of the action.

When epeb commented on the "dire" consequences of going to another adult after a negative response, I definitely think as they showed, that this situation is up for interpretation. On one hand, as previous stated, it could create an environment where the children are tacitly discouraged from asking the paraprofessional for help, but this could also go for the teacher as well; this is the situation I feel is being overlooked (perhaps not purposely). Say that a student would ask the paraprofessional a question and recieve a no answer, instead of discouraging them from using the paraprofessional, would asking the teacher for help in this case be discouraged? I don't believe that it would. If the described relationship actually exists, theoretically, the teacher could override the paraprofessional's no answer, whereas the former would have no such power. Another factor exists in that teachers and paraprofessionals are both human and thereby are liable to make mistakes and have lapses in judgement which may be unfair to the child. In such a case, it may be beneficial for the child to seek a second opinion and doing so should not be wholly discouraged, but used in moderation when justified.

One other aspect of this post that caught my eye was your assertation that paraprofessionals are not second class citizens in the classroom, as I discussed briefly earlier. However, what followed seemed to contradict this point. Perhaps it was the tone or merely an ill-timed paragraph, but it certainly conveyed quite the opposite feeling.

I treated my paraprofessionals as my fellow colleagues in the workplace and insisted that other teachers and students treat them the same way.

I wrote out a list of duties for the paraprofessionals so it was clear what I needed. This helped at the beginning of the year as a checklist so I didn't have to follow up behind."

These two paragraphs seemed to me to be very contradictory. It's not necessary in most workplaces to micromanage someone you consider a "fellow colleague", and especially to give them a checklist of things that should be done. As I said before, while I acknowledge that you are the teacher and the paraprofessional is the paraprofessional, they do have to complete a significant amount of training in order to get into the classroom and are competant to perform all but the most complicated tasks.

While I see where epeb is coming from with her personal experience with paraprofessionals, I do respect your view on how things should be done in the classroom and perhaps the tone that comes through as a bit condescending is completely unintentional. Most of your post seems that you care very much about these people and teaching, so I feel that this information can be used to better teacher-paraprofessional relations. Obviously there is no perfect fit for every classroom, but with a bit of interpretation and alteration, this method of coexistance can be put into practice quite well. :)

loonyhiker said...

epeb: Thanks so much for your comments. I, in no way, meant to be demeaning. In fact, I meant to emphasize how valuable my paraprofessionals were to me! In fact, the first one I had my first year of teaching probably taught me more than anyone.

Let me clear up a couple of things that I didn't make clear. The list of duties were requested by my paraprofessionals so they were sure to do all the things that I needed. It also made them feel part of the faculty (since my school didn't give them a staff handbook or invite them to faculty meetings). One parapro that I had kept forgetting to take attendance at the beginning of the period so she felt this list of duties were more like a checklist for her. As for the "dire" consequences, this was meant to support my parapro as the person who also could discipline the students and not just me. Many times my parapro told the students that they couldn't do something and then they would come to me to try to get a different answer. This was not tolerated. If the parapro said something, it would stand. (My own children did this with my husband and me when they didn't get the answer they wanted!)

I hope I modeled for the whole faculty how much I respected my parapro. First I never called them this in front of the students (they didn't understand the term parapro) so as far as I was concerned we were the 2 teachers in the classroom.

You were totally right that sometimes these strategies might not work for everyone. A lot depends on your personality but I also feel like if you start off with the right attitude, it goes a long way too. I just hope some of these suggestions and ideas will be able to help someone out there.

loonyhiker said...

Pittcrew2011: Thanks so much for your comments. As I mentioned in the previous comment, I was thinking more of behavioral issues than academic issues and should have made that clearer. Many times my parapro has referred the students to me if necessary and many times I have referred the students to the parapro if I didn’t know the answer. The best part was that students learned that adults don’t always know the answers but we were willing to help them find the answers if neither of us knew them. One of my parapros was the varsity basketball coach so I always referred sports questions to him! (I totally ignorant when it comes to sports and of course when we had to help them with the PE exam, I always sent them to the coach).
As for the list of duties, the reason I had them was not to micromanage, but more to be an aid for the parapro. The admin kept taking the parapros each year and moving them around to different teachers (some didn’t like working with a certain teacher so they kept rotating so no one was with this person every year). My parapros took such good care of me that I would forget all of the things they automatically did every day because they just did it. We came up with a list of duties together so that if they were out or moved, the substitute or new person could just look at the list and go on. If they had to add new things to it, they did. My parapros kept me out of trouble with the admin and I trusted them completely. I don’t know how I would have had a successful classroom without their support.
You were exactly right about different strategies working for different people. I believe it all depends on the teacher’s personality and the makeup of the students in the class. I hope that some people will find something useful from what I’m posting and be able to adapt it in a way that works for them. Thanks so much for visiting!

Anonymous said...

A para is not a teacher and that is that. They do not have the responsibilities of the teacher and will not be held accountable if the students do not perform well on the state tests, etc. The para does not answer to parents, administrators, child study team members, or anyone else. The para does not make lesson plans or write IEPs. My mother was also a para. I have had many paras who are certified teachers who could be teaching if they wanted to (I guess, if they could get hired as a teacher and keep a teaching job)-- but they chose to be a para instead. Along with that choice comes both the perks of not having the responsibilities of the work and the pressure of ensuring you do your job and teach the kids what they need to know--including teaching children with significant learning and emotional problems--as well as the inconvenience of having to work in an environment where you are not the chief control in the classroom. And for the record, there are many jobs where you get a list of responsibilities that are written out--epeb's comments were extremely petty and clearly from a daughter of a para and not from a teacher. Epeb, I'm sure your mom works hard but I have taught kids with autism, you should spend some time observing the TEACHER in your mom's class for a while. Follow her home if you need to get a better idea as to whether paras are "any different than the teacher is". This article was written to help teachers have success with paraprofessionals with the author sharing some tips for TEACHERS to help us work with paras in our classrooms. Her ideas make sense and will work well in a REAL class. It's obvious you don't teach and don't understand this thread.

loonyhiker said...

@anonymous Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you find some of my ideas useful. Thankfully the paras that I had really made my job much easier than it would have been without them. I think by stating expectations and keeping communication lines open, it made our relationship in the classroom smooth and this was in the best interest of the students,which is always a good thing. It helped misunderstandings and hurt feelings from happening.

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