Most special educators work with one or more paraprofessionals, aides or assistant teachers. Such relationships can be rewarding or disastrous, depending on how they’re structured, defined, and managed. Unfortunately, few teaching programs help their students master the intricacies of working with paraprofessionals, aides or assistant teachers (whom I will generally refer to as assistants). Because of their importance, I will offer some suggestions.
To get the most from assistants, encourage them to take responsibility for getting results in the classroom. To do this, involve them in almost every phase of the classroom—planning, grading, record keeping, supervision, and teaching. Remember that their level of responsibly will vary, depending on their training and job description. Therefore, I recommend that you:
Ask your central administration or principal for a copy of your assistant’s job description. It’s an excellent starting place for discussing procedures, responsibilities, and expectations.
Make clear, from the beginning, that you’re responsible for everything in the classroom and therefore, assistants must tell you about anything that might have implications for staff or students. Setting your role as the leader—at the beginning—is crucial. Although you may tend to be friendly, keep in mind that friendliness can cloud issues when setting boundaries. The trick is to be friendly while clearly communicating you’re always in charge.
Learn about your assistants’ interests, expertise, hobbies, and talents. Whenever possible, let them use these.
Give your assistants ample chances to make and try suggestions, especially those that reflect their expertise and interests.
Make sure your assistants realize that they’re essential to the success of the students with whom they work. Show appreciation for their efforts, accomplishments, and initiative.
Treat your assistants as "second teachers." Encourage them to see what needs to be done and to do it. Remember, however, that liability issues may arise if children are left with assistants who are not licensed or certified teachers. If a child gets hurt or problems arise while you’re out of the room, you may face legal problems. To prevent such problems, discuss your responsibilities with your supervisor and study the district’s relevant policies and guidelines.
Make sure that your assistants understand certain special education information, especially information for which they have responsibilities, such as the modifications and accommodations listed in children’s IEPs. In some instances, you may have to train them (e.g., how to provide verbal reinforcement, how to modify assignments).
Make your assistants aware of each student’s IEP goals. This is important for both your students and assistants. It informs your assistants about each students’ needs and communicates to your assistants that they’re an important, trusted, integral part of the teaching team. This may help them grow professionally and make them feel appreciated.
Write short notes to assistants to thank them for a good practice, such as "I want to thank you for being so positive when talking to the students."
Be direct and explicit when you want your assistants to do something. Let them know by when the task needs to be finished. Avoid the trap of underutilizing assistants. Usually, giving people moderate challenge, challenge they can succeed at if they make a moderate effort, strengthens interest and motivation. In contrast, work that’s too easy, or hours with little to do, creates boredom.
If problems arise with your assistants, consider discussing the problems with your school psychologist, coordinator, or principal to determine how to resolve them. Act promptly—usually, the longer people wait to talk about problems, to figure out solutions, and to take action, the more entrenched and difficult they become.
Be solution oriented. When problems occur, ask your assistants to recommend ways to prevent their reoccurrence. Never blame. Blaming reduces cohesiveness.
Hold weekly meetings with your assistants. Listen carefully to their concerns and suggestions. If they’re logical, try them. If impractical, explain why they might not work; if possible, offer alternatives.
Include one of your assistants in parent conferences. When doing so, use a round table to reduce the possibility that parents might feel intimidated.
As you may have gathered, I believe that a staff that works like a team will benefit your students. But remember, as teacher, you’re the manager, you’re in charge. As such, your leadership is crucial.
Dr. George A. Giuliani is the Executive Director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) and is a full-time Associate Professor and Director of the Special Education Program at Hofstra University's Graduate School in the Department of Counseling, Research, Special Education, and Rehabilitation. In addition to holding a Juris Doctor from the City University of New York School of Law, he is a New York State licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist. He has an extensive private practice focusing on children with special needs.