By Sandra Alvear
Having been a stay-at-home mom prior to my career in education, I didn’t know what to expect when I first entered the classroom 18 years ago. It was a little overwhelming. It reminded me of the day I walked out of the hospital with my first child. I had looked at my husband back then and said, “Do you realize they just let us walk out with a baby? I have no idea what to do. Do you?” There was no book and there were no instructions, but we raised two wonderful boys who are now 27 and 28 years old. It didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of hard work and dedication. We became a team.
That brings me to my thoughts on what a successful collaboration between a paraprofessional and a teacher is like. Being a strong team is important, but just as important are communication and respect.
My first assignment was in a special education class. On the first day I was greeted by Irene, another paraprofessional with whom I’d be working in that class. With several years of experience, Irene taught me to be mindful and patient. She made me feel right at home and that is where my journey began.
When two or more people work together it is important to start the day off in the same way. Before we enter the classroom we should check our pride at the door and step in with an open mind. We come to work to educate students and to make a difference in their lives. With some children we can make a difference that we never imagined, and maybe even make changes that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Every day starts with us going over the routine for that day. We make sure everyone is on the same page for the students—specials, lessons, lunches, and services and whatever else needs to be done. Does it always run smoothly? No. Does it always work as planned? No. But do we ever give up? No. Are we always trying, together? Yes.
In my 18 years in the classroom, I’ve had the privilege of working with a group of strong teachers. Each day I learn something new. But working with an extremely talented teacher does not mean that you should just be told what to do and follow orders. It is very important to ask a lot of questions. If you don’t clearly understand something you’re asked to do, or you don’t know why you are being asked to do it, you should feel free to have a conversation with the teacher. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “I just need to know…” This is how we learn and grow. Asking such questions need not be difficult. You should express confidence in these conversations.
The first thing I do when given a new assignment is touch base with the teacher and introduce myself. Sometimes I start with an email. I let the teacher know how excited I am with my new assignment and that I would like to meet. Not knowing who she or he is going to be in a room with for 180 days is just as stressful for the teacher.
In my district, paraprofessionals report for the in-service day before school begins along with the teachers. This is my opportunity to let the teacher know how long I’ve been working and talk about my experience. Then I ask general questions about how the teacher runs her/his class and what the teacher’s expectations are of me. I know my role in the class, for the most part, is to assist in reinforcing lessons, keep the students on task and be an extra pair of eyes, but I want the teacher to know that I am very confident in my capabilities and that I am flexible and eager to learn.
Some paraprofessionals might be intimidated by this approach, but we must remember that we have a lot to offer. Do we start telling teachers what to do or how to run their class? Absolutely not. We should let them know, respectfully, that we’ve worked with many different teachers in many different environments with many different kinds of students and adults. We are always watching. We take pride in what we do and we do it well.
If you have a suggestion for how to work with a student or group of students because you’ve been in a similar situation, you should be confident and ask the teacher if you can try a different approach. On some occasions when I was placed in a general education class and saw a student struggling, I would ask the teacher if I could try something else. Consistently, the teacher’s response would be “Sure, go for it.” Sometimes the instructional or behavioral strategy worked and sometimes it didn’t, but it was always worth a try.
I’ve worked predominately in special education, and I learned how to modify and try different ways to do things. I’ve taken data, worked on behavioral programs and I’m part of daily lessons. The teacher, child study team members and I are in constant communication.
I feel that the end of the day may be even more important than the beginning. This is the time when we take a breath, and spend a few minutes recapping the day. It is also our opportunity as paraprofessionals to have a conversation with our teachers on what went well and what didn’t.
If you were working with a student as per directions of the teacher, let her/him know how it went. Did what was asked of you work or not? If you have any ideas—especially since you were the one working with the student—this would be the time to let your teacher know. You could also let the teacher know whenever you tried something different and how it worked.
The end result is that you are both doing what’s best for the success of your students. You might even say, “I tried everything and they still don’t understand.” This information is very important to the teacher—this is where we become her/his eyes. Now your teacher knows to try something else.
So after all is said and done, remember that even though we all have different personalities, we all wake up as caring, compassionate people who are coming to work to help educate young minds. We get to make a difference in so many lives. We are their foundation. We are their role models. At times, will we get frustrated? Sure we will. But we will still wake up each morning, with smiles on our faces, to come to school and start a new day.
Sandra Alvear is a paraprofessional at Crawford-Rodriguez Elementary School in Jackson. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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