One of my biggest challenges as a cluster program teacher is managing paraprofessionals. Some teacher preparedness programs do cover ways to train staff, but special educators not only need to be exceptional teachers, but exceptional leaders. I have done a lot of outside coursework on leadership (I recommend Vanessa Van Edwards), but I wanted to share some tips to help get buy-in from paraprofessionals. Here are my five “C’s” to help you work with paraprofessionals…
1. Coffee Order
It was my goal this school year to learn every staff member’s coffee order (especially the clerks!). I didn’t quite meet my goal, but I did learn my paraprofessionals’ coffee preferences. This is a small gesture you can offer your paras throughout the year. It is a nice treat and lets your paras know that you care. You would like and appreciate the same gesture if a co-worker got you a coffee, especially if you had a rough morning or week. It can be that extra boost that your staff needs to help make a successful day for the students!
Complimenting is so important…people need about five positive interactions to make up for every one not-so-great interaction. Bank those positive interactions so when you do need to redirect a para, they are more likely to accept the feedback. At first, I felt weird about complimenting adults, but I thought of ways to be more natural, it would make sense and it wouldn’t be me treating paraprofessionals like they are students. One way I compliment my paras is by complimenting their student or group of students (“Wow, Mr. Jones’ table is so focused!”). Also, a simple “thank you” could be like a compliment. If a para takes initiative to sit next to a student who is getting a little squirrely or subs for a dedicated para, I say “thank you”. I also sometimes do a “thank you for your flexibility” in advance for days there is a field trip or schedule changes. Another natural way to sneak in a compliment is to assign them roles that play to their strengths. I might say, “Ms. Lopez, can you run the art station at the party? You do such a great job doing art projects with the students”.
Sometimes I feel like I don’t have time to have a conversation with my paraprofessionals, but I think it is important to try to have some short personal conversations throughout the week, at appropriate times. I greet all my students and staff in the morning when they are at breakfast. There might be times when related service providers are with a group, students are absent, or when students are independently completing work (and no behavior issues or potential behavior issues present) where it would be okay to have a brief conversation about their weekend or family. This could be a great way to find out about any talents, hobbies or connections your paras have that might be fun and appropriate to bring into the classroom (music, art, cooking).
4. Call On Their Expertise
Yes, I am the teacher and I have two master’s degrees. But, I don’t know what my students do at recess. I don’t know what my students’ food preferences are at lunch. I don’t know what specific art or gym skills my students have (wow, I’m starting to sound like great teacher, but I do have a point…). This is a great opportunity to ask your paraprofessionals and allow them to be the experts. It is a win-win because you need to know the information and they will feel like valued. I think about the times a colleague has asked me about IEPs or teaching strategies and how good it felt to share my expertise. Give your paraprofessionals the same opportunity.
5. Create a Team
Teamwork makes the dream work! Cheesy, I know, but true. The team mentality is very powerful, it helps accomplish goals, which helps students and the classroom. After a particularly rough behavioral incident in my classroom, I asked if the rest of the students were okay and then I asked, “Team 301 [my classroom number],are you okay?”. From then on, that’s how I have referred to the staff in my classroom-in texts, emails and IRL. Naming your team can help your paras feel like they are truly part of the classroom and have an important role to fill.
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