How can paraprofessionals communicate effectively with teachers they work with in the classroom? The context in which paraprofessionals and teachers interact places certain imperatives on their communication. These imperatives are discussed in terms of (1) role distinctions and role clarity; (2) careful, active listening; (3) willingness to be forthright; and (4) follow-through.
Paraprofessionals and teachers talk together during the school day, often in the classroom with students present or in a workroom with other teachers present. Wherever and whenever they communicate, their communication is affected by various features of the school context. For example, school policies, such as policies concerning confidentiality of information about students, influence what educators communicate and to whom. And the segmented structure of the school day often affects the length of their conversations. Adding to the complexity of the context for communication is the fact that while teachers usually welcome having a paraprofessional, the presence of the paraprofessional also creates new demands on teachers’ skills and time. Working with a paraprofessional in the classroom may be a source of stress for teachers as well as a help. And with students watching what goes on most of the time, the classroom can feel like a fishbowl. How teachers and parapros communicate impacts not only their professional relationship, but also their relationships with students.
Role Distinctions and Role Clarity
Effective communication in this complex context requires shared understanding between paraprofessionals and teachers about their roles. In broad terms, teachers have primary responsibility for planning, teaching new concepts and skills, evaluating students’ performance, and evaluating the effectiveness of instruction. Paraprofessionals’ primary responsibility is to provide assistance that supports planning, instruction, and evaluation. Teachers generally give directions to paraprofessionals and offer guidance and resources to help them support students’ learning. Paraprofessionals work with students under the teachers’ direction, and they provide feedback to teachers about the students’ performance on specific assignments.
Communication is essential to role clarity because the dynamics between teachers and paraprofessionals change as they work together. As the school year progresses, their roles may change in subtle ways. Within the broad parameters of their roles are many possibilities. Teachers and paraprofessionals are likely to define and re-define their roles many times in keeping with these broad parameters and the best interest of the students.
Effective communication with anyone requires respect for that person’s ideas and feelings. And interaction with a supervising teacher certainly includes the courtesies given to anyone—for example, showing interest through eye contact, words, and body language. Going further, effective communication between paraprofessionals and teachers requires agreement about what will happen with students. Careful, “active listening” can help ensure high levels of agreement. For paraprofessionals, active listening typically includes the following strategies:
- attending closely to the teacher’s perspective, directions, or feedback;
- remembering what the teacher said by making mental notes if taking notes on paper isn’t appropriate for the circumstances;
- clarifying what is being said by asking questions about specifics or by double-checking what the teacher said, for example, “Marian is to read the passage aloud twice and then once silently, is that right?”
- summarizing the major points briefly after the teacher has finished discussing students or assignments to be sure everything’s clear.
Willingness to be Forthright
The paraprofessionals’ role is not just to accept direction, but also to share perspectives about their work. Effective communication of this sort requires candor and, as always, courtesy. Being courteously forthright about frustrations with students, for instance, requires honest but neutral language. Accusing a student of “laziness,” for example, isn’t being forthright; it’s being judgmental. By contrast, telling a teacher that a student didn’t complete an assignment offers useful, even vital, information.
Following through on commitments and assignments is essential to the paraprofessional’s role. But follow-through is not always easy. Several strategies help people with follow-through:
- Set specific goals for yourself (and write the goals down).
- Commit to a plan—a set of steps—for achieving the goals.
- Chart your progress toward achieving the goals (e.g., by making and using a checklist).
- Report your progress and ask for feedback.
- Use the feedback to refine your goals and your plan as needed.
Another part of follow-through involves being responsive to constructive criticism. When responding to constructive criticism from teachers, paraprofessionals can use techniques that have been shown to help many people benefit from feedback. First, wait a moment before responding to the criticism. This pause allows time to overcome the defensiveness common to most people when they are told that something they did wasn’t up to par. Then, acknowledge points that seem immediately valid. Next, ask questions for clarification about points that are less obvious and, if you disagree with any of these points, explain why. Finally, express commitment to improvement and ask for suggestions about how to perform more effectively.