Slide 1: Welcome to this unit about communicating with your supervising teacher. I’m Kevin Daberkow. I’m a teacher and teacher educator, and through WordFarmers Associates, I’m helping develop instructional modules for the Ohio Partnership for Excellence in Paraprofessional Preparation at the University of Dayton School of Education and Health Sciences Grant Center.
Slide 2: This unit focuses on how paraprofessionals can communicate effectively with teachers, especially the teachers with whom they work most of the day. These communications set the pattern for what can be accomplished with students. So this realm of communication is critical to carrying out the instructional mission.
Slide 3: Please understand that teachers have the added responsibility—on top of their instructional duties—of supervising you as well as an entire classroom of students. Teaching is difficult enough! So it’s a challenge for many teachers. They don’t get much training (sometimes none) in supervising parapros. But you and the teacher must nonetheless build a working relationship. Quite likely, you’ll build your relationship on something of a trial-and-error basis.
Slide 4: Much of the difficulty comes from the fact that you do this work together in a very public place: the classroom. What you do (and what you say) is almost always on display for all to see. The better you understand each other, the better you will work together and the better you will help students learn. And that’s the point of your partnership. Patience and respect for the difficult work you do together will help the relationship become more and more effective.
Slide 5: In schools teachers and parapros usually work in a classroom with students present and watching the adults’ every move. Or they’re in a workroom, usually with other teachers around. What this means is that nearly all of your communications are very public. There are two big reasons to keep this context in mind, always.
Slide 6: First, you and the teacher need to work hard to cultivate a productive and happy classroom. How the two of you interact is not just your business, but it organizes your relationships with the students. And the students are watching all the time. When you cultivate such a classroom, you give instruction a big boost.
Slide 7: Second, you can’t disclose sensitive information about students to other students or to colleagues who are not working with the student. In other words, confidentiality imposes limits on your public communications. It’s a legal matter, actually. (This module devotes an entire unit to explaining confidentiality requirements.)
Slide 8: Now that we have a bit of the context in view, let’s consider four important demands of communication as they relate to the context:
- the different roles of teacher and parapro,
- careful listening,
- willingness to be forthright, and
Slide 9: Roles. Teachers are expected to supervise parapros. In other words, teachers get to tell you what to do! As supervisors, they should guide parapros, provide resources, make assignments, and provide feedback. But it’s not a one-way-street. Teachers plan instruction, teach lessons, and evaluate students’ performance. Parapros give help for these things. Giving help requires you to have a productive relationship with your supervising teacher. And a productive relationship depends on productive communications: active listening, being forthright, and following through. Your role is subsidiary to the teacher’s role, but it’s an important and very active role.
Slide 10: Active listening. That is, you’re not an assembly line worker. Your job requires a lot of thinking and reflection. Why? Because like everyone else at school, you do your work by talking and acting. And that requires care and attention. You have to regulate your communication, and you do that by careful (or “active”) listening. Your listening must be very careful because you and your supervising teacher need to agree about what actions to take with students—what to teach them, how to teach them, and how to manage their behavior. You have to listen to students and to each other. Constantly.
Slide 11: So 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 reflecting back what the teacher said; and
- summarizing the major points briefly after the teacher has finished discussing students or assignments to be sure you’ve understood.
Slide 12: Careful listening is a key part of effective communication, and it’s difficult to see. Talking is the other, easy part, to see. Anyone can talk. But saying difficult things well is a challenge that takes practice to get good at. We call this kind of talk being forthright.
Slide 13: Being forthright. There’s more to communicating well than active listening. Obviously! Let’s face it: instruction is about confronting a variety of problems. And these problems may seem, or actually be, unpleasant. Forthrightness means you don’t “sweep them under the rug.” You deal with them instead. But how? Being forthright is so important in communications between parapros and teachers that it requires two more slides.
Slide 14: Being forthright is a simple idea. But doing it well takes a lot of practice. Here’s the simple idea: you need to share the insights that you develop working with students and thinking about your work. It’s part of your role. How does one do this in a forthright manner? That’s the tricky part. You need to present observations, concerns, suggestions, and 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, this is much harder than it sounds.
Slide 15: Getting good at describing things in this way takes lots and lots of practice. It’s a skill that your supervising teacher should help you develop! In fact, in a good working relationship, you will be helping each other 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 each of you vital information. Or, in another example, saying that a parent is “overprotective” doesn’t help either of you 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 the teacher understand what’s going on and to decide if and how to intervene. When you describe situations, report observations, offer suggestions, and present criticisms in this manner, you’re filling your role very well indeed. Again: getting good at this takes lots of practice.
Slide 16: Follow-through. Once you and your supervising teacher have made plans and divided up the work, you need to follow through with your 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. And some tasks are unpleasant—putting them off is very tempting. So here are some useful strategies to help you with follow-through:
- Set specific goals for yourself (and write the goals down).
- Specify the steps for achieving the goals.
- Chart your progress: make and use a checklist.
- Report your progress to your teacher or team and ask for feedback.
- Use the feedback to refine your goals and plan.
Slide 17: There you have it: the special demands of working in a school for the roles and the partnership of teachers and parapros, for listening carefully, for being forthright, and for follow-through. These are the big ideas for effective communication in the classroom context. But there are particular conditions and events about the what, where, when, and how of classroom communication that also deserve attention.
Slide 18: What.The “what” concerns three things: crisis, routine instruction, and information you learn from parents. These are regular events in classrooms. Yes, as you already know, a crisis actually is a regular event. But it’s a regular event that’s 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. Routine instruction is worth mentioning too, because it’s the important center of communication between the parapro and the supervising teacher. That trial-and-error process of developing a working relationship mentioned in a previous slide? Good routines for instruction come from getting better and better, working as a team. Keep working on a relationship that scaffolds instruction. Now we come to sharing information you get from parents. Parapros often interact with parents; what they learn that is instructionally relevant should be shared promptly with teachers. It should not be held in confidence by parapros. And parents need to hear that you are not keeping the information they share to yourself—you plan to share it with the teacher.
Slide 19: Where. Classrooms are very public settings. This unit has mentioned the limits that publicness sets. But, rather regularly, parapros need to communicate with teachers out of the earshot of students: if you need to say something by disclosing something about a particular student. You can go into the hall, or retreat to a corner of the room. Be aware that these are options and that they protect students’ information and respect their dignity.
Slide 20: Another feature of “where” relates to the new normal of communicating by text, instant message, and email. Important messages should not go digitally, but should be given face-to-face, the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, this wisdom is often ignored. Sending a digital message is easier. And if the message really is important, and difficult, the urge to avoid the difficulties is considerable. Avoid that urge! Communicating face-to-face is part of being forthright.
Slide 21: When. In schools, and in all organizations, meetings are often where communication happens. Just recognize the fact that meetings can take place on the fly—when issues need consideration right away. But scheduled meetings are also extremely important. They provide room for extended discussion and for careful planning. If those meetings can be improved, help improve them.
Slide 22: How. This webinar stresses how to communicate with teachers effectively. There’s one point to stress. Communication with teachers is focused on the instructional mission. There’s a special language for talking about instruction. You will pick up the use of that language on the job. Teachers learn it in their preparation programs, but everyone in school is also learning new ideas, new vocabulary, and new procedures on a regular basis. So are you. Here’s the point: the language used to talk about instruction exists for a purpose different from the language of friendship. The language of friendship aims at being close, at getting close to another person emotionally. It’s a different kind of understanding. The language used to talk about instruction aims to scaffold the learning of students. The intent is friendly—but it’s not about friendship. It’s about learning.
Slide 23: We’re not done yet! We’ve left one difficult and important point for the end, in order to 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 relative 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 uses the language used to talk about instruction. It aims at objectivity, uses neutral language, and avoids blame. Receiving and offering criticism requires being forthright, and responding appropriately to it requires active listening.
Slide 24: So how do you 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. Acknowledging points that we recognize as valid is also important as is asking questions for clarification. Another useful technique is to record in writing, in your own words, up to five take-away points. These are to be used to guide improvement. That use, in fact, is the very best way to respond to constructive criticism.
Slide 25: Paraprofessionals work well with supervising teachers when they understand the demands of the context. It takes time. One can prepare for it, but doing it requires care, attention, reflection, courage, and the will to improve. It’s key to respect the difference in roles, to listen carefully, be forthright in sharing information, and follow through with assignments and commitments. Keep the tips about what, where, when, and how in mind. And stay alert for discovering additional tips as you develop your partnerships with teachers.