Back to: Module: Communication and Collaboration
Slide 1: Welcome to our slideshow on communicating with your mentor teacher! I’m Marcquis Parham with WordFarmers Associates. I’m presenting this slideshow on behalf of the Ohio Partnership for Excellence in Paraprofessional Preparation at the University of Cincinnati’s Systems Development and Improvement Center.
Slide 2: In this slideshow, we focus on how paraprofessionals can communicate effectively with teachers, especially the teachers who guide their work. Routine communication among teachers, parapros, and other education professionals sets the stage for what can be accomplished with students. So, this realm of communication is critical to carrying out the instructional mission of schools and school districts.
Slide 3: Please remember that teachers shoulder a lot of responsibility. On top of their instructional duties with entire classrooms of students, they also serve as members of instructional teams. Even the collaboration between one teacher and one parapro represents the work of a team. However large the instructional team, though, experienced teachers are the ones who take leadership in guiding other members—new teachers, student teachers, and parapros alike. Providing this kind guidance involves setting direction, coaching, and monitoring work. And it’s not easy!
Slide 4: Much of the difficulty comes from the fact that experienced teachers—let’s call them mentor teachers—and the colleagues to whom they provide guidance—let’s call them mentees—work together and learn how to communicate with one another in very public places: classrooms, mostly and sometimes shared workrooms. There are two important reasons to keep this context in mind.
Slide 5: First, mentor teachers and their mentees need to work hard to cultivate a positive and productive classroom. How the two interact is not just important to their own relationship building, but it also sets the tone for their relationships with students. And the students are watching all the time. When a mentor-mentee team creates a classroom in which relationships are constructive and nurturing, that team gives instruction a big boost.
Slide 6: Second, members of instructional teams cannot disclose sensitive information about a student to other students or to colleagues who are not working with the student. In other words, confidentiality imposes limits on what the mentor and mentee can share through public communications. It’s an important legal issue, in fact; and this module devotes an entire unit to explaining confidentiality requirements.
Slide 7: Now let’s consider four important principles of communication as they relate to the context in which teacher-parapro (in other words, mentor-mentee) communication takes place. These principles relate to:
- the different roles of teachers and parapros,
- active (careful) listening,
- willingness to be forthright, and
Slide 8: We’ll start with roles. Communication in organizations like schools is, at least in part, determined by assigned roles. People in the role of teacher are first and foremost expected to plan instruction, teach lessons, and assess students’ performance. These are the main functions associated with their role. Also, as part of their role, they are expected to guide the work of parapros and other mentees. In more traditional language, that guidance is called “supervision.”
Slide 9: When they function as mentors (or guides or supervisors) to parapros and other mentees, teachers direct the work of these colleagues by telling them what to do. But, just as important, they coach their mentees to ensure they perform their work well. Mentor teachers also provide mentees with resources, monitor the performance of specific work tasks and the overall workflow of the classroom, and provide feedback to their mentees.
Slide 10: It’s not a one-way-street, however. Because they help with the work of instruction—planning, teaching, and assessing—parapro-mentees have important insights to share with their mentor teachers and the rest of the instructional team. A productive relationship with the mentor teacher allows a parapro or other mentee to feel comfortable enough to share those insights.
Slide 11: But what practices cultivate a productive relationship? As we’ll explore in the next part of the slideshow, several practices are extremely important: active listening, being forthright, and following through.
Slide 11: Let’s consider active listening. Paraprofessional educators and other mentees in schools are not assembly line workers. Their jobs require a lot of thinking and reflection. Why? Because like everyone else in schools, mentees do their work by talking and acting. And that requires care and attention. Both mentors and mentees need to regulate their communication, and they do that by careful, active listening. Listening must be very careful because mentees and mentor teachers need to agree about what actions to take with students—what to teach them, how to teach them, how to manage their behavior, and how to assess their learning. All members of the instructional team need to listen to students and to one another. Constantly.
Slide 12: For paraprofessional educators, active listening typically includes the following strategies:
- attending closely to the mentor teacher’s perspective, directions, or feedback;
- remembering what the mentor teacher says 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 restating what the mentor teacher says; and
- summarizing the major points briefly after the teacher has finished talking to check for understanding.
Slide 13: Active listening is a key part of effective communication, and it’s a challenging skill to learn. Listening is relatively easy, but active listening is much more difficult. The same thing is true about talking. We all talk all the time. Talking seems easy; but talking clearly in order to communicate complicated or difficult things is a challenge. And it takes practice to get good at it. We call this kind of talk being forthright.Slide 14: What’s involved in being forthright? Being forthright means confronting problems head-on by talking about them. Let’s face it: instruction is about confronting a variety of problems. And these problems may seem, or actually be, unpleasant. They might be so unpleasant, in fact, that we’re tempted to sweep them under the rug. The problems we ignore, however, come back and bite us. So, forthrightness is the practice that saves us from sweeping problems under the rug. But how do we go about becoming forthright? What does the practice involve?
Slide 15: Being forthright is a simple idea, but it’s hard to do. Being forthright requires honest, straightforward, timely communication about important problems or issues. But it also needs to evoke a productive response, and that’s the hardest part. Often, when we deliver an honest, straightforward, and timely message about a problem, we trigger defensiveness in the people with whom we share the message. That’s because people often see such a message as a criticism of them. So, what’s the alternative?
Slide 16: The alternative is to present observations, concerns, suggestions, and even criticism as objectively as possible. Neutral language helps. And blaming students or colleagues isn’t forthright: it’s evasive. Our job is to make things work well for students. So being forthright is about solving problems, not about getting rid of them by assigning blame. In workplaces, doing this is much harder than it sounds.
Slide 17: Getting good at describing things in this way takes lots and lots of practice. It’s a skill that a mentor teacher can help a parapro or other mentee develop. In fact, in a good working relationship, mentors and mentees help one another develop this skill. For example, saying that a student is “lazy” isn’t forthright; it’s judgmental. On the other hand, reporting that the student didn’t turn in an assignment and describing the related circumstances gives vital information to the team working with the student. Or, in another example, saying that a parent is “overprotective” doesn’t help anyone figure out how to talk with the parent. But describing the parent’s practice of carrying the student from the door of the school to the car (when the student is able to use a walker) helps members of the instructional team understand what’s going on and to decide if and how to intervene. When we describe situations, report observations, offer suggestions, and present criticisms in this manner, our forthrightness helps us solve problems in productive ways. But again: getting good at this takes lots of practice.
Slide 18: A third practice that’s critical to relationship-building between a mentor and mentee is follow-through. Once a paraprofessional and the mentor teacher have made plans and divided up the work, both need to follow through with their assignments. It goes without saying, but follow-through is not easy. Lots of things happen during each school day. Everyone gets busy, and some tasks fall off the plate. Also, because some tasks are unpleasant, putting them off is very tempting. So here are some useful strategies to help parapros and their mentor teachers accomplish follow-through:
- Set specific goals (and write the goals down).
- Specify the steps for achieving the goals.
- Chart progress, perhaps by making and using a checklist.
- Report progress to the mentor teacher or instructional team and ask for feedback.
- Use feedback to refine goals and plan for next steps.
Slide 19: There you have it: the main practices for effective communication between mentor teachers and mentees. To review, these main practices are: (1) active listening, (2) being forthright, and (3) follow-through. In addition to learning how to use these practices, it’s also useful to think about the particular conditions and events surrounding communication between mentor teachers and the paras whom they mentor. These conditions and events concern the “what,” “where,” “when,” and “how” of classroom communication.
Slide 20: Let’s start with the “what” or topic of communication with a mentor teacher. The topic often relates to one of three things: a crisis, routine instruction, or information learned from parents. Including crises, these are regular events in classrooms. But although crises are regular events, they are not routine. The thing about a crisis is that it demands immediate attention. So the message is simple: don’t postpone communication! Don’t wait for a scheduled meeting.
Slide 21: Routine instruction is often the topic at the center of communication between parapros and mentor teachers. Good routines for instruction come from good teamwork. As parapros and their mentor teachers build productive routines through frequent and forthright communication, their capacity to discuss instruction improves.
Slide 22: Another prominent topic of communication between paras and teachers is information shared by parents. Parapros interact with parents frequently, and what they learn often is relevant to decisions about instruction. This instructionally relevant information should be shared promptly with the mentor teacher and perhaps with other teachers on the team. It should not be held in confidence by parapros. Paras should also let parents know that the instructionally relevant information they share will be passed along to the mentor teacher and sometimes discussed by the instructional team. This message can be delivered in a positive way by saying something like this: “Thank you so much for sharing that information. It will be useful to our whole team as we plan lessons for your son.”
Slide 23: Now, let’s turn to the “where” of classroom communication. Classrooms are very public settings. But a lot of instructional communication between paras and mentor teachers takes place in classrooms. Nevertheless, quite often, parapros need to communicate with teachers in a space that is out of the earshot of students. For instance, paras often need to say something about a particular student without other students hearing. In these cases, the teacher and para can retreat to a corner of the room or send messages on their phones. Be aware that certain practices should be used to protect the confidentiality of student information and respect students’ dignity. Teachers and paras can establish routines for this kind of confidential communication at the beginning of the year and use these routines whenever necessary.
Slide 24: Still, complex or very important communications don’t often work well as text messages. Some messages are best delivered face-to-face, the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, the convenience of texting causes us all to ignore this wisdom from time to time. Sending a text message seems easier. And if the message is difficult, the urge to avoid a potentially unpleasant conversation may seem compelling. It’s important to push back against that urge, however. Communicating face-to-face is part of being forthright, and, in many cases, it can make problem-solving easier and less contentious.
Slide 25: Another consideration is “when” communication should take place. In schools, as in many organizations, a great deal of communication happens in the time set aside for meetings. Even though scheduled meetings are extremely important, however, some messages need to be delivered on the fly. Addressing a classroom crisis can’t wait for a scheduled meeting. But debriefing the crisis and figuring out how to keep a similar crisis from happening again are things that can and should be discussed in a scheduled meeting of the instructional team.
Slide 26: Finally, let’s turn to the “how” of communication. This whole unit provides suggestions for how to communicate effectively with mentor teachers. But there’s one point to stress. Communication with mentor teachers should focus on the instructional mission. And there’s a special language for talking about instruction.
Slide 27: Paraprofessional educators often learn that special language on the job, whereas teachers often learn it in teacher preparation or professional development programs. Irrespective of where they learn it, however, using it to talk about instruction improves the precision of communication. Meetings of the instructional team provide a good place and time for clarifying everyone’s understanding of the special terms used to talk about instruction.
Slide 28: There’s one difficult and important point to discuss at the end of this slideshow. We’ve left it to the end so that we can talk about it in the context of everything else discussed so far. This difficult point is criticism, both receiving it and giving it. Improvement is not possible without criticism. In the case of the work of educators, criticism is feedback related to improvement. We all need it, and we can all give it. When criticism is offered to scaffold improvement, it’s described as “constructive.” Note that constructive criticism among educators typically relies on the language used to talk about instruction. It also aims at objectivity, uses neutral wording, and avoids blame. Receiving and offering criticism requires being forthright, and responding appropriately to it requires active listening.
Slide 29: So how should we respond to criticism? One technique is to pause a moment before responding. This pause allows time to overcome the defensiveness most of us feel when told that something we did wasn’t up to par. Three other responses are also helpful. First, we can acknowledge points that we recognize as valid. Second, we can ask questions to get greater clarity about points we don’t fully understand. And third, we can record major takeaways in writing so that we can refer to them later. Constructive criticism helps us all improve. Instructional teams that get good at giving and receiving constructive criticism about instruction tend to get better and better at their work.
Slide 30: This slideshow has covered a lot of territory. So, now that we’re at the end, we’ll review the four key practices for supporting good communication between parapros and mentor teachers. These are: (1) understand and respect differences in role, (2) listen carefully and actively, (3) share information in a forthright manner, and (4) follow-through with agreed-upon actions. In a supportive school context, these practices will lead to productive communication among educator colleagues about students and their instruction.