Updated: Jun 29, 2021
This post is intended to be part of a multi-post series related to working with paraprofessionals. If you haven't already, go back and check out the piece that started this whole thing: Communication with Paraprofessionals.
Today, I'm talking about collaboration among teachers and paras because proactive collaboration is definitely an art and is critical in facilitating a successful working dynamic.
There are approximately 1 billion interpretations of what collaboration should or could look like among educators. Still, for this post, we'll chalk it up to simply 2 or more people working together for the mission of a vision.
How can teachers utilize the strengths of paraprofessionals and collaborate to work as a team?
I've broken it down into 2 pretty broad categories.
Intentional, collaborative conversations
Breakdowns in communication are where strife is bred and where the dumpster fire is lit for the first time.
Assumptions are made.
Actions (or lack thereof) are read into.
Body language and facial expressions are misinterpreted based on the receivers already thing that something is wrong.
Trouble begins to brew.
Going into a conversation with intention can help steer the dialogue when working with paraprofessionals.
During my time in the classroom, I had between 2-3 (depending on the year and the circumstances) paraprofessionals assigned to my life skills classes. I quickly learned that some of the paras have quality insights and ideas that I wanted to know more about, but I also needed to give them a seat at the table to optimize a team approach. Most Friday afternoons, we were able to have a 30(ish) minute team meeting. Here are the things that were standard topics to address:
What went well over the last week?
What did not go well, and how can we fix it?
Student updates: IEP updates, student progress, and concerns, behavior, etc.
An overview of what the upcoming week looks like
Misc. (calendaring, issues, ideas, etc.)
As the teacher (leader) of the classroom, it's important to facilitate conversations among paras, but not dictate. Running the whole conversation in a Q&A or checklist format is not conducive to collaboration and instead turns into a one-sided forum with a little bit of feedback along the way. Fostering a collaborative and ongoing approach throughout the week and year goes a long way.
It was during these conversations that we would discuss the upcoming week. One thing that I found helpful was to provide each para with their own go-to binder. This served as their lifeline to the functioning of the class.
Here are the things that I found helpful to include in each paraprofessional's binder:
Y'all. If you know, you know. Paraprofessional schedules, especially ones that work in special education, are absolutely wild. They change about 15518 times per year (only a slight exaggeration).
Could there BE any more usernames and passwords? Goodness, gracious.
In the actual binder rings were tabs for M-F. Behind each tab would be that day's work or activities. This was helpful because it gave everyone a full week at a glance, but it took a lot of planning. If your district utilizes a set curriculum, the 'binder filling' process is much easier, but if you're having to build your own as you go, allow yourself planning time throughout the week to figure out what this will look like.
I opted to use the binder's back cover to house a class-wide behavior visual that I developed. It wasn't anything fancy and was meant only to remind some basic behavior principles. Behavior was often a topic in our Friday conversations, and this tool helped serve as a reminder throughout the week.
This simple framework helped us utilize our time together and allowed everyone to collaborate with the same set of guidelines and for the same purpose: How can we best meet the needs of our students?
Experience, equity, & empowerment
Teachers attend PD and training to continue to refine their craft.
So do paras.
Teachers have a unique set of experiences that have shaped their educational philosophy and drive their purpose.
So do paras.
Teachers see things on IG or Pinterest that they think would be best for a particular student.
So do paras.
Teachers are the instructional leaders of the classroom.
In the eyes of students, paras are too.
Though they serve students in a support role and not as a teacher of record, a paraprofessional's experiences should not be discounted. There are clear boundaries that prevent paraprofessionals from instructional planning and providing initial instruction, but beyond that, paras can have a positive impact on student progress during your time together. While they typically do not hold a teaching certificate (some do), there's no reason that a teacher and para can't draw on both of their unique experiences to brainstorm collaboratively.
Another thing that I found to be helpful over the years was making sure to not "steal" the authority of the paras that I worked with unless it was necessary. I'm not going to go down my rabbit hole of behavior in this post, but I've always found it helpful to make sure that paraprofessionals are teachers in the eyes of students.
Here's an example of what this might look like:
A student has a hard time self-regulating appropriate behavior when presented with nonpreferred tasks. You (the teacher) have an excellent rapport with the student and know what strategies work best to regain appropriate behavior. You've modeled this time and time again, and the paraprofessional that works with you has seen strategies successfully modeled.
Fast forward to when the student demonstrates the same behaviors with the paraprofessional, who also has an excellent rapport with the student.
2 options are presented: You can either jump in and take care of it yourself OR let the para use the tools they've seen modeled and resolve the issue.
If a teacher steps in to save the day without allowing the para to resolve an issue, a tiny bit of authority was removed from the para. In turn, this made the teacher more of an authority than the paraprofessional in the eyes of the student, which then means that the student could (likely, will) demonstrate similar behaviors in the presence of the paraprofessional because, in the student's eyes, the para can't handle the situation.
1 of 2 functions of the student's behavior was reinforced: attention was received by not just 1 but 2 adults, and in the midst of attempting to diffuse the situation, whatever task at hand was successfully avoided.
There ABSOLUTELY are times that a teacher should step in to resolve situations, but that shouldn't be the norm.
Basically, unless it's necessary, try not to steal the thunder (authority) of others.
Model for them.
Give them the tools that they need.
Genuine collaboration among paraprofessionals can go a long way.
Coming to the table with the mindset that paras are there to support and bring a unique set of resources and experiences to the table is especially important in advancing collaboration.