The backbone of our schools are instructional assistants (IA), also known as paraprofessionals or teachers’ aides. We could not do our jobs without the support of these amazing individuals. The need for competent and caring IAs has only increased over the years driven by lack of special education teachers, higher needs of students, and push for inclusive practices. Great IAs, just like any position, are not born but cultivated through thoughtful and strategic development. Any great working partnership requires time and effort to fully manifest into an effective and efficient partnership. Here are some tips to nature and cultivate a strong working relationship with IAs.
1. Welcome your new team member. It may seem like an obvious step but an easy one to overlook with our busy schedules. You do not get a second chance to make a first impression. Unfortunately, the reality is that these positions have a high turnover rate and sometimes as the classroom teacher we are not even involved with the hiring process. I once had a woman walk into my class and start helping a student with an assignment. Unbeknownst to me she was the “new” IA. Until I talked to her I had no idea that someone was hired for the position that had been open for over six months. I was surprised and grateful yet disappointed that I was not included in the process.
So how can you create a welcoming environment? Set up a welcome to my class basket that includes the essentials for success such as: classroom and school schedule, student information, positive classroom procedures, cheat sheet on expectations, and some fun items like scented hand sanitizer and treats. The Council for Exceptional Children has several resources designed specifically for paraeducators. Check with your building administrator or special education director to see if those materials can be added to the basket. While the basket is a great idea do not lose sight that the greatest investment you will ever make in a person is time. Take some time to learn about your new colleague. Ask about their experiences, family life, and hobbies; as much as they are willing to share and appropriate for the setting.
2. Expectations. My favorite quote from Brene Brown is “clear is kind” (Brown, 2018). Providing clear expectations not only benefits the IAs assigned to the class but for the teachers and administration. Administrators make sure you are communicating your expectations with teachers on working with IAs. Many of our special education teachers do not have the experience of managing an adult in an effective way. Support our teachers in creating and sharing expectations.
- We all know that saying “do not assume anything”. Share your classroom expectations for students and how you plan to have the IA interact with students. Be clear about the IA’s role and what aspects they will be directly supporting for students and classroom routines. IAs with big hearts think they are helping students by doing the student’s work for them. Model what support looks like when working with students. Do not rely on the district office to provide professional development prior to an IA starting in your class. The greatest area I see the need to help IAs with is behavior management. Model positive expectations, redirections, and how to use a student’s positive behavior intervention plan. Do not wait for there to be an issue, be proactive and model appropriate classroom expectations.
- Share the vision and mission for the district, school, and classroom from the perspective of how their work supports the vision. For example, if the vision for the school is to foster creative life-long learners that are active and independent members of their community. Highlight the connection between the vision and their work. If the vision is to have independent students we must teach and support our students in the process. Often when students have an IA assigned to them for support there is a tendency to overcompensate for the student and the adult does more of the work. Share the vision and remind the IA that support is provided and gradually faded away as the student grows.
3. Communication is key. This goes along with clear expectations, but there are a few more things specific to communication that should be considered.
- What is the plan to communicate with each other? This might seem silly since you will be in the same classroom most of the day, but as we all know there are little opportunities to have conversations, especially confidential conversations if needed. IA’s often have staggered schedules and may only be on campus when students are, which greatly limits the opportunities to provide student and class updates. In my class I used a journal to share pertinent information with classroom IAs. If you use any written approach please be mindful of confidentiality and use objective language. Remember the rule of thumb, if you don’t want to see it in the newspaper don’t write it. If written communication is not your style then plan how you will carve out time to share updates. Contact your administration if you need support.
- Will there be communication with families? As a former special education director I would highly advise against this. Many of our IAs live in the school community and have existing relationships with families. Set clear expectations on appropriate communication with families. This supports the IA, students, families, teachers, and programming. As a teacher I never would want to place an IA I work with in an uncomfortable situation. It is my job as the teacher to provide communication to families about their child. If your school does not have an onboarding process of professional learning around confidentiality for IAs, work with your administrator or director of special education to create one. Often simple passing by conversations with parents can be breaches of confidentiality in regards to other students in the class. The safest plan is to have communication between the classroom teacher and families only.
- What communication with building and district administrators is expected? Part of creating a welcoming environment and creating a sense of belonging is strong communication with all staff members. There is a difference between informal chats and sharing student and classroom information. Share with the IA the process for asking questions and sharing concerns. The first level of support for an IA is the classroom teacher. If the concern was not addressed then the building administrator should be made aware. However, the teacher should have the opportunity first to address any questions or concerns. Principals and special education directors be sure to provide professional learning opportunities for teachers in working with IAs, do not assume they have the skillset to manage another adult.
4. Data cycle process. A big part of any classroom is the data cycle process. Create clear expectations for data collection and roles and responsibilities of the adults in the classroom. Remember, “clear is kind,” especially when it comes to expectations.
What are your data collection protocols? Share with the IAs in your classroom if data collection is needed for: individual students on behavior, academic goals, and classroom goals. Make sure to take time to norm around the data that is being collected and how to write observations in objective language. I worked in a behavior classroom and we did monthly check-ins for interrater reliability reviews and to check one anothers objective language. Everyone perceives behavior differently and recording data from a personal perspective could greatly skew a student’s progress. Come up with a check-in schedule with the IAs you work with to ensure you all are on the same page when it comes to data collection.
5. Retention tips
- Honesty is the best policy. This is more in line with retention from strong recruitment. Let’s be honest with each other, we work with some of the most challenging students in the school. Coupled with staffing shortages it becomes tempting to “sell” the IA position. This is short-sighted, trust me. If you sell someone on a lie it comes out quickly and you will be back in the same spot of being short-staffed. Be honest about your classroom, students, and your expectations. You are looking for the right person, not necessarily the person right now.
- One of the greatest and most effective retention strategies is providing ongoing job embedded mini professional development opportunities. We all want to be successful and the very best we can be and offering professional learning gives us that outlet. Do not worry about creating something big and all encompassing. Focus on short objectives that can be modeled in the classroom. For example, you can share that the focus for the day will be providing positive and specific praise to students. Give the reasoning for choosing the topic, a few examples, and then model the practice throughout the day. Encourage IAs to practice during class and provide immediate feedback. Give it is try, remember keep it short and sweet.
“Educational rockstar cleverly disguised as a teacher assistant.” I saw this quote on social media not long ago and was struck by the truth of it. Instructional assistants, paraeducators, or teacher assistant; whichever term you want to use, feel free to replace with rockstar. Just like rockstars though the development takes time and effort. Be the support for the IA in your classroom by sharing your expectations, clarifying communication, and providing meaningful professional learning opportunities.
Friend, M. (2022, January 6). Co-teaching. Council for Exceptional Children. Retrieved January 30, 2022, from https://exceptionalchildren.org/topics/co-teaching
Morin, A. (2021, April 9). 6 models of co-teaching. Understood. Retrieved January 30, 2022, from https://www.understood.org/articles/en/6-models-of-co-teaching