Is the following a fair description of the kids who make up your classroom? Three of them struggle with math and four with reading, two are ELLs, one needs speech therapy, and two seem determined to never give you a moment of peace.
As a teacher, you face a variety of hurdles, but that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone—your army of paraprofessionals, school counselors, speech therapists, reading specialists, and others are there to support you.
Each of these specialists has a unique role and a common goal: to help your students, and you, succeed. Together, they are a fount of educational expertise. We asked a group of support people to share tips on working together with teachers. Here’s what they said.
Their job: Provide support to students who have communication disorders that affect academic performance
How to leverage this relationship: Speech therapists work with kids who have articulation disorders—difficulty pronouncing words—as well as children who struggle with expressive language. They work on building these skills in one-on-one sessions but can help students in ways that directly apply to class assignments as well. “If a student has poor language skills and has an oral presentation coming up, I can help her—if I know about it,” says Christine Waddell, a speech-language pathologist at Edison Elementary School in Bow, Washington. Teachers who clue in Waddell to upcoming assignments that might present a challenge to certain students give her the opportunity to provide very specific, immediately applicable support.
Close cooperation between classroom teachers and speech therapists is essential for students who are receiving support for an articulation disorder, Waddell points out. That’s because articulation disorders are intimately linked to difficulties with phonemic awareness, which also affects students’ reading ability. Because speech therapists have such limited time with students, however, they can’t provide as much phonemic support as students need. “I don’t necessarily treat phonemic awareness as a goal, because I only see a student one or two times a week for half an hour, and [I have to] treat the actual articulation disorder,” Waddell explains.
Bonus tip: Classroom teachers can help students by playing a lot of word games in the classroom, says Waddell, even beyond the earliest grades.
Their job: Provide extra support and instruction to struggling readers
How to leverage this relationship: “Reading is the hardest thing we learn how to do,” says Mary Martin,
a reading clinician who works with children at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. Students who struggle with reading may have difficulty with different aspects of the process, but the one thing they have in common is a lack of confidence. Carefully choose materials and activities that help these children avoid embarrassment and experience success, suggests Martin. “If you try to present a student with reading materials that are too complex, the student feels like a failure when he or she has trouble decoding or answering questions.” Regular check-ins with the child’s reading specialist can help you choose materials that are appropriately challenging.
A reading specialist can also help you figure out how to adapt other elements of your curriculum to meet students’ needs. For instance, a fifth grader who isn’t reading at grade level will probably struggle with a spelling list based on words from books the class is reading. You can support the student’s learning (and build confidence) by providing spelling words that correspond with phonics rules the child is practicing with the specialist. “Try a list of words where sections of the words follow the same rule,” Martin says. “You don’t want to crush the student’s spirit with a spelling test; you want to help him build words.”
Their job: Provide instructional support to students under the direction and guidance of a licensed educator
How to leverage this relationship: Students form distinct relationships with people, and a paraprofessional who “clicks” with a student can share all kinds of ideas regarding how to best work with that child. Furthermore, because paraprofessionals bring their own unique backgrounds and skill sets into the classroom, they may see things you don’t and they may consider options you may not be aware of. “We might not have a certification or a degree, but we do have knowledge and history,” says Stephanie Dewberry, a paraprofessional who works with students on the autism spectrum at William M. Boyd Elementary in Atlanta.
“Some teachers think that we are overstepping our boundaries when we make suggestions, but we see things a different way because we’re paraprofessionals,” Dewberry says. “I may say, ‘This works with this student. Why not try it? If it isn’t helpful, we can always go back to what you had been doing before.’”
Teachers who actively solicit ideas from specialists such as paraprofessionals can greatly benefit from their years of experience. Plus, that engagement creates a collaborative atmosphere that benefits both students and staff.
Wendy Albrecht, a paraprofessional at Parkview Elementary School in Bellingham, Washington, says, “Working collaboratively helps make everyone feel as though they are a valued member of the team.”
Their job: Provide basic mental health services and support students’ social and emotional needs
How to leverage this relationship: A child who is dealing with anxiety, depression, or trauma at home won’t be able to pay attention or perform to the best of his or her ability.
“If a student has been battling [dark] feelings, you can’t expect him to put on a smiley face and act like everything’s okay,” says Raychelle Lohmann, a school counselor at Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina.
School counselors, social workers, and other mental health professionals can help classroom teachers understand and respond to these situations—which often manifest as disruptive behavior.
“By educating teachers on how trauma can affect kids, we help them become aware of how they may be mislabeling certain behaviors as ‘defiant’ or ‘problematic,’” says Lesley Anne Mendonca, a counselor at KIPP Generations in Houston. “Once a teacher can recognize the signs of trauma, she can shift her tactics and increase her overall effectiveness.”
Not sure how to deal with certain behaviors? Ask your counselor or social worker. “When you start thinking, ‘I don’t know how to help this kid,’ it’s time to reach out,” says Karen Liberato, a social worker at The Calais School in Whippany, New Jersey.
Their job: Facilitate student/teacher access to information in many formats
How to leverage this relationship: “Classroom teachers used to say, ‘Please pull a bunch of books on this topic,’” says Mike McQueen, co-author of The Reading Makeover and a media specialist at Ritenour Middle School in St. Louis. “A more effective approach would be to team teach.”
Instead of merely asking the librarian for resources, discuss the learning standards you’re tackling and work with him or her to develop activities that take advantage of the full array of literacy sources available today.
When a social studies teacher asked McQueen for help with a unit about social media and civics, McQueen began by sitting down with him and teaching him the Google app suite. They then collaborated digitally before introducing the unit—which included a YouTube video about the Arab Spring—to students. They guided students as they read, learned, and collaborated digitally, and McQueen connected the teacher with the school’s technology specialist, who introduced Powtoon, a free animated video creator, to the class. Instead of writing papers to share their learning, students created Powtoon videos, which they put online.
“One of the biggest strengths of effective school librarians is their knowledge and understanding of how to combine technology with the curriculum,” McQueen says. “The connections that a good librarian can help kids make digitally is an untapped golden sea of opportunity.”