How a Shared Passion for Students has Helped Me Build an Effective Classroom Team with My Paraprofessionals
by Sarah Sibal
As a special education teacher in a 4-5th grade classroom for students with autism, I learned quickly that having a strong classroom team is key to my effectiveness as a teacher and the success of my students.
My classroom is supported by 2 paraprofessionals and we each play an essential role in the classroom, from the actual teaching and leading of small group activities to helping students transition between tasks. For new teachers working in a special education classroom with paras or for veteran teachers who are looking to build a more collaborative team, I think there are 4 essential things to keep in mind:
1. Focus on Building Positive Relationships
I’m a firm believer that positive relationships with your colleagues, especially those you work with on a day-to-day basis, is the key to a successful working environment and to the success of the students. Building these relationships with your paraprofessional staff needs to happen right off the bat. With my paras, I do this by making it clear from the beginning that we are a team. I involve them in planning and establishing classroom routines.
I have an open policy when it comes to how we go about setting up classroom routines and expectations, for instance. I welcome their feedback and do my best to get them involved in decisions I make about the classroom. At the beginning of the year we meet together as a team and discuss what has worked before or what we need to improve on and go from there. We all take accountability and responsibility. I make sure to tell my paras that it is better to be upfront and honest with challenges or conflicts that we encounter in the class. We talk about it and find ways to compromise immediately.
2. Communicate Clear Expectations
It’s important to set out clear expectations for the paras right from the get-go. If a class has a well-established routine and everybody is doing what is expected of them, a lot of confusion is eliminated. This is important for us as the classroom leaders, of course, but it is especially important for kids with autism. They tend to respond well to routines and well-defined expectations.
At the beginning of the year, we meet as a team and present to review schedules, classroom routines and most importantly, we discuss students IEPs. I make it clear to my paraprofessionals that it is imperative that they know the students we are working with.
Differentiation can happen at all levels of instruction, and can even involve how you involve your paraprofessionals in different aspects of classroom learning. I tend to think of my paraprofessionals as co-teachers. If you were to visit our classroom, you wouldn’t know who the lead teacher was, as we are all taking a lead role in working with our students. I’m fortunate to have worked with the same two paraprofessionals for 2 years now. We have learned about one another’s strengths and weaknesses and have had to work at building the collaborative team we have now.
Each of my paras have different academic strengths and unique relationships with each of our students. I do my best to utilize their academic strengths to benefit the kids. If one para is strong in teaching math skills for instance, I’ll make sure their skills are being utilized to help our students excel in math. It is also essential to know who works well with whom. If one of my paras has a good relationship with a student, I use that relationship as tool for managing behavior in the classroom. Last year we had several behaviorally challenged students. Each one of us really had to bring our A Game every day to keep up. Knowing who worked well with each of these more challenging students was a key aspect to keeping the behaviors under control.
4. Keep the Students Heart and Center
At the end of the day it comes down to helping the students, which is why ensuring that each one of our unique set of skills is being directed at supporting student growth is a top priority in the classroom. As I mentioned earlier, knowing the students personally but also knowing the ins and outs of their IEPs, their learning challenges, and the ways that they learn best is at the heart of every decision we make in the classroom. As we work toward building relationships, establishing routines, and differentiating teaching, remembering that these things are the “how” but the students are the “why” is ultimately the glue that holds us together as a classroom team.
About the Author:
Sarah Sibal is a Special Education Teacher in a 4th-5th grade Autism Classroom in Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia. She has been using Rethink in her classroom to standardize data collection practices and track goals on student IEPs for the past 4 years.