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Teaching Opinion

A ‘Communication, Action, Reflection’ Cycle Makes a Teacher-Paraprofessional Relationship Work

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 06, 2020 9 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways for teachers and aides to work together?

In Part One, Rita Platt, Michele Morgan, Rachel Wright, and Dennis Griffin Jr. offered their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rita and Michele on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Elizabeth Stein, Dr. Angela Peery, and Katrina Hankins contribute their commentaries.

A three-part “cycle”

Elizabeth Stein’s career in special education spans beyond 25 years in grades K-12 along with undergraduate- and graduate-level courses. She is a national-board-certified teacher currently working as a special education/ Universal Design for Learning instructional coach in New York. Elizabeth is the author of books on special education practices as well as Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Her most recent publications include: Elevating Co-Teaching Through UDL (CAST Professional Publishing, 2016), and Two Teachers In the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge, 2017). Elizabeth is a doctoral candidate at Molloy College’s Educational Leadership for Diverse Learning Communities Program:

It is not a secret that teachers have an ongoing, fast-paced list of responsibilities on a daily basis. Oftentimes, the potential for a powerful connection between paraprofessionals and teachers is lost in the buzz of a busy day. Yet, effectively working together is one responsibility that must be intentionally and carefully planned and implemented to create the sanctity of an inclusive environment. This powerful relationship may be achieved through a three-step cycle that embeds communication, action, and reflection. The secret to the success of the cycle is that it is a never-ending process throughout the school year. Yes, that’s right—it’s a commitment. It’s a commitment to respecting the value that each adult brings to the process of empowering students.

The cycle includes creating a shared goal, ensuring empowering actions, and acting upon a reflective awareness. Goal(s) for working together must be established and clearly communicated. Keeping a notebook to document the date and specific goal for reference is an effective way to include asynchronous communication in the flow.

Next, making sure that teacher(s), aide(s), and assistant(s) involved understand that there is no space for enabling students. All adults must serve as guides to empower students toward self-determination and agency. It is never the role of the aide or assistant to become a static, dependent force. Students must not become unnecessarily reliant. Therefore, all interactions must respect the abilities of the students with paraprofessionals as guides in providing the appropriate level of supports.

The final phase of the cycle is the catalyst that fuels all phases of the work together. Reflective awareness must evidence itself through ongoing observation, interaction, and communication between adults in the room and the students. What is working? How do we know it is working? These reflective moments will inform the movement of evolving with the goals, empowered actions, and strategies that work for and with students. So here is the bottom line. Teachers and paraprofessionals must set goals; work toward the goals through thoughtful, empowering actions; and keep communication open with an intentional reflective awareness. In the course of a busy day, this three-phase cycle can be just the focus needed to make the most of these powerful relationships.

“Stay flexible”

Dr. Angela Peery is a consultant and author with 32 years of experience as an educator and the author of The Co-Teacher’s Playbook: What It Takes to Make Co-Teaching Work for Everyone. Prior to becoming a consultant, Angela was an instructional coach for a chronically low-performing middle school. Her other experience includes 10 years of classroom teaching in middle and high schools, four years as a high school administrator, and leadership roles at the building, district, and state levels:

In today’s classrooms, many configurations of adults exist—there are generalists working with specialists in special education and English-language learning, teachers working with coaches, teachers working with aides, teachers working with technology integrationists—and other arrangements that this list surely omits. With the partnering of adults becoming more common, the question becomes, how can these partnerships be most effective for students?

In my experience coaching and consulting with hundreds of teachers, many of whom are partnered with paraprofessionals in their classrooms, I have learned that the number one determinant of success is the relationship between the two adults. It needs to be cultivated with care. This begins with getting to know each other both as educators and as people with lives outside school.

Mutual respect is the first pillar upon which to build the relationship. Words and gestures speak volumes. Respect can be nurtured or injured in a matter of minutes by seemingly innocuous actions. Repeated slights can accumulate until there is a huge obstruction. Maintaining respect for your partner is priority number one. Start by talking with each other about how you show respect and how you like to be shown respect.

Effective communication between the partners is pillar two of a healthy working relationship. Agree to go to the other first before ever going outside the partnership to discuss problems. This is key in demonstrating respect as well. You can easily upset your partner if you complain to others about a situation between the two of you.

Communication about student progress and student needs is also important. Establish a regular time—and perhaps a protocol—for discussing how students are doing. If helpful, bring others into these regular meetings as well. For example, a literacy or instructional coach may bring a beneficial perspective.

Two questions that I suggest that teaching pairs discuss are: What is the one student behavior that absolutely drives you nuts (and how can we handle this together)? What is the one thing that I can do to immediately brighten your day when you really need it? Knowing these two things can go far in helping you both support each other.

Lastly, remember to be flexible and have a sense of humor. Regarding flexibility, take the work seriously but don’t take yourself seriously. Keep an open mind and be willing to change things on the fly if you think it will help students. And as for humor—being able to laugh at oneself is necessary for two people to work together in such an intimate setting if they don’t want to drive each other completely crazy. Laughter is also a great stress reliever, and thus it should be employed in situations that are tense or frustrating. Be sure to have a good laugh at least once a day.

“Three priorities”

Katrina Hankins is the literacy coach at Roebuck Elementary in Spartanburg, S.C. Katrina also serves as a summer reading camp teacher in schools across Spartanburg District Six:

How do they do it? Teachers will wonder when entering Mrs. Martin’s 1st grade classroom, where it is difficult to tell which person is the teacher. I spoke with Mrs.Martin and Mrs.George to find out what the secret is to their success as they work seamlessly together in this vibrant space. Martin shares, “We have been working together for four years now and clearly have created something special.” It is the partnership they have created that has really worked well for both of them and their students. They share the responsibility for student learning and success. George is fully invested in return. She appreciates being informed on what needs to be done and gladly pitches in wherever needed. George often works with a small groups whether they are reading, writing, or researching as well as with individual students and their specific needs. Students know and respect both equally, which is evident in their interactions throughout the day.

Their three priorities make it possible for everyone to achieve similar results:

  1. Create a partnership. Martin believes that the first and most valuable step is to establish a shared space. The classroom is “our room.” Both Martin and George have equal authority regarding student behavior expectations and both work with students toward a shared academic achievement vision.

  2. Communication is key. Naturally, as the teacher, Martin attends meetings and participates in professional development far more than her assistant. This information is brought back to George so that she is kept up to date as well. George appreciates being told what is needed and expected so that she feels confident and able to aid in instructional needs. Access to high-quality materials such as the newly obtained F&P Guided Reading kit, makes it possible for her to keep students’ learning focused and moving forward.

  3. Invest that little bit extra. Clearly, George is generous with her time, energy, and compassion, which explains why she was voted the Support Person of the Year at Roebuck Elementary. Martin shares that students truly miss “Little Mama” if ever she is not there, which is rarely because of her dedication to her work with Martin—but most of all with their students.

Thanks to Elizabeth, Angela, and Katrina for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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