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Sunday, 19 July 2015

Summer SPED Blog Hop Week 4!

Welcome back everyone!  Today is the second last post in our Summer SPED Series!  I hope you have enjoyed everyone's posts and maybe even learned something along the way!  Today's post is all about working with Educational Assistants, as we call them in Canada, or Aides/Paraprofessionals as they are referred to in the States.

Teachers have incredibly difficult jobs.  There are a million things to organize within a classroom, teaching materials, lesson plans, money for milk or lunch, field trips!  The list goes on and on, and then you have the 20-30 kids you have to manage on a daily basis!  Special Education teachers have the added responsibility of managing the EAs or aides that they work with.  As SPED teachers, we have to wear many different hats, teacher, therapist, counsellor, nurse, consultant and supervisor.  Managing all of these different roles can be tricky at times, even for a seasoned SPED teacher.  The task that seems most daunting to most SPED teachers is working with their EAs, especially for new teachers.  

Before I was a teacher, I was a Senior Therapist and Supervisor for privately and publicly funded ABA/IBI programs.  Training and managing a team of therapists was a major part of my job and I was assigned to two different regions to help improve the quality of service.  Through that experience, I learned what is is like to deal with difficult people.  I also received a lot of training on leading and managing teams.  As SPED teachers, we don't receive any of that training, but we are expected to complete these duties on a daily basis.

In my current role, training and teaching EAs is still a major part of my job.  As my classroom is based on a transitional model, I have EAs from both local school boards come into my classroom for training for months at a time.  I also consult to other schools to assist them with their programs, provide training and professional development.  One of the schools, I was in this year had 36 students with varying disabilities, two teachers and 16 EAs.  

The teachers are both relatively new to the classroom (in their first five years), while some of the EAs have been there for 15-20 years.  When you have been in a classroom for that long, it's not unusual that you take ownership over it and have ideas and opinions about how things should be run, or get stuck in routines and habits that have been developed over the years, whether they are bad or good.

So, how do you manage this many EAs all with different levels of education and a variety of work experiences?  My previous experiences as a supervisor and my experience during the last year consulting in this classroom have solidified what are essential components to training and managing a high performing team to me.  A high performing team has:

  • a clear sense of purpose
  • willingness to accept responsibility
  • good relationships and clear communication
  • ability to deal with conflict effectively
  • flexibility, adaptability
  • recognition and appreciation is expressed
  • strong morale

So, how do you develop a positive working environment and high performing team?

1.  Be Highly Organized.  I can't stress this enough.  If you are not organized in how your instructional day will run for your students, with a thoroughly detailed schedule, your classroom can quickly fall into chaos.  It is essential that you and your EAs know what the day looks like, their daily activities, what the students are being taught and when, where the teaching materials are and how to teach them.  Each staff member also needs to have their own detailed daily schedule, so they know who they are working with and when.  

2.  Clarify Roles and Expectations.  I have often seen staff struggle because they don't exactly know what their role is and what is expected of them.  Everyone runs their classroom differently and has different expectations for their EAs.  If you want to have a positive working relationship with your EAs, then you need to clearly outline for them your expectations of them.  This includes their responsibilities in the classroom on a daily basis in relation to student programming and care, and other responsibilities such as prep work, communicating with parents, therapists and other community partners, and cleaning toys,etc.  Having this in writing is always a good idea.

3.  Orientation and Training.  As SPED teachers, we most likely have more education, training and experience than our EAs in regards to teaching practices.  Therefore, it is part of our responsibilities to ensure that when new staff come into our classroom, we provide them with an orientation to the classroom and the school.  Staff will need some initial training on teaching practices we use, communication systems that the students use, technology and on disabilities in general.  In order to have a high performing team, all members of the team must have access to ongoing training and professional development.  This is something that I do with my team on an ongoing basis through discussion, videos, modelling and on the job coaching.

4.  Recognizing and Valuing Staff Differences; Utilize Staff Strengths and Resources.  All the staff in your classroom will have different ways of doing things, different strengths and access to different resources.  Recognizing these differences and capitalizing on them can make your classroom run more smoothly.  For example, if one of your EAs are artistically inclined and love art, let them run art class.  If you have a male on your team and you know that one of your students responds better to males, then assign them to work with that student.  Be cautious though as assigning an EA to one specific role, such as always dealing with a student's behaviours.  This can lead to staff burnout and does not allow each EA to develop and learn new skills.

5.  Share Leadership.  In my classroom, we share all responsibilities.  Well, most of the responsibilities!  Some, only I can do such as writing IEPs and report cards, setting up and leading meetings and ordering supplies and managing the budget.  But, for the day to day activities in the classroom, we all share responsibility for that.  We take turns leading the morning meeting, literacy and math lessons, music and phys. ed. class.  I set it up this way, so that if I am away for a day and get pulled into a meeting, I know my EAs can run the class without me and that the students are engaged in meaningful learning activities.  When we need to make important decisions about how the classroom is running, I consult my EAs, we discuss the changes and come to an agreement, for the most part!  This includes, the physical set-up of the classroom, the daily schedule and purchasing large or expensive items.  All the decision in regards to how skills are taught are made by me, but if a teaching technique isn't working, and the EAs have suggestions, then I incorporate them into the teaching method.

6.  Deal Effectively with Conflict as it Arises.  This is one of the most important aspects to developing a positive working environment.  If you are unhappy about the way an EA is conducting themselves in your classroom, you need to address it with them as soon as possible.  Conversely, if you see that a couple of your EAs are not getting along, you need to address it with them and act as a mediator to identify the source of the conflict and try to come to a resolution.  Avoiding conflict or acting in a passive-aggressive manner is one of the biggest pitfalls in developing a positive working environment and strong, cohesive team. Dealing with conflict is one of the most unpleasant aspects of any job, but avoiding it is very damaging to the team.  I have a couple of  handouts on how to deal with conflict that you can download here.

7.  Engage in problem-solving and decision-making.  We are fortunate in my classroom to have time set aside once a month when we meet as team to review student data and discuss any problems or challenges that we are facing.  I understand that not everyone classroom has this opportunity, but it something that you should strive to set up on a regular basis.  When you don't engage in problem-solving and decision-making with your team, problems never get resolved and sometimes can get worse.  When problem-solving, it is important to be flexible and be able to adapt to new or different ways of doing things.  When leading a team, it is important that you demonstrate these abilities if you want your team to do the same.

8.  Acknowledge and Celebrate Successes.  We celebrate the small steps are students make towards a goal every day, but we often tend to overlook those with our colleagues.  It is important to acknowledge your EAs hard work, their effort in working to improve their teaching skills or acquire a new skill, and their successes when they achieve those goals.  We all have goals that we work towards in our teaching practice and professional development and this is the same for the EAs that we work with, for the most part.  So make sure that you praise them for their efforts and successes, with publicly or privately.  This positive reinforcement will validate their efforts and encourage them to continue to improve.  When we overlook this or take it for granted, staff can become resentful and develop an attitude of "why bother?".  To avoid this we must reinforce their efforts, just as would our students.   

9.  Open communication, Trust, Respect.  This takes times to develop, but is essential to a positive working environment and strong team.  I have been in a classroom where the teacher constantly talks about her colleagues behind their backs and have witnessed the destruction this caused to the team.  Addressing concerns, providing constructive feedback and allowing opportunities for discussion allows the team to resolve problems and grow together.  Knowing that your colleagues trust and respect you and vice versa, allows for more open communication and builds a stronger team.  Your EAs need to know that you will support them in tough times, either when dealing with behaviours, following through with commitments and responsibilities or dealing with difficult parents.

10.  Most Importantly, Have Fun!  I know that building a strong team is hard work, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun!  In my classroom, we joke around, a lot!  When you deal with difficult students as we do, you have to have a sense of humour and be able to laugh about what you go through in a day.  It's also important to remember that everyone has a life outside of school and they like to talk about it.  I have found that talking about your personal life with your colleagues allows you to develop more meaningful relationships with them.  Planning activities together outside of work also allows you to have fun together, while getting to know each other better.  Just don't do anything crazy that you will regret!

I hope you have found these tips helpful.  I have a completely editable packet of guidelines and a training guide that you can use with your EAs/Aides/Paraprofessionals in my TPT store that you can grab for free! And don't forget to hop over to The Eager Teacher's blog to see her tips!

Thanks for stopping by!


  1. What an awesome post! So thorough!

  2. I agree that taking turns leading different activities is important. My students benefit greatly from learning to be able to take directions from a variety of adults rather than just the teacher!
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  3. The tip sheet about effective communication is so handy! Great things to remember!
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  4. Nicole,
    You have so many fabulous tips! Thank you so much for sharing them with us!
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  5. These tips seemed so well balanced!! Thank you! Totally a team effort!

  6. These are all such fabulous tips, I don't know which one to even comment on! :) I love that you talk about utilizing staffs' strengths...which can certainly make your classroom thrive. Really well-written post.

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