Teachers and Instructional Assistants– Working As a Team to Support Students

The relationship between the classroom teacher and instructional assistant, as well as their interaction with the rest of the educational team, is a key to success for students in any learning environment, according to Dr. Marilyn Likins director of the National Resource Center for Paraeducators.A “leader -shift” in many classroom programs is occurring,where the instructional assistant has evolved away from being just an “assistant” and become an instructional co-teacher.

Co-teaching, means “alongside of.” Those of us fulfilling this kind of role support the work team in a variety of ways and also realize a number of benefits. For example, it improves our teaching, pushes us to think beyond our own established opinions, allows us to put two sets of eyes on student progress, gives us someone to bounce ideas off of, and helps us manage student behavior.

But for all of its benefits, co-teaching is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

For one thing, you have to give up a certain amount of control.You may need to bend on your strong beliefs about how kids learn.And you may have to be willing to enforce different behavioral expectations than you would if you were alone.

You may also feel like you are constantly checking yourself to monitor whether you are making decisions based on your emotional reaction to a situation: did she/he really ignore my decision? You may find you need to refocus your thoughts to see the situation from a more analytical angle.

It all comes down to building mutual trust in your team, and that isn’t something that happens overnight.It takes time for two (or in some classroom programs, three, four, or five) people to put away their baggage, lower their shields, and come to a place where they can work together.This is often the piece that gets overlooked when we are being told how great co-teaching is.

Although carefully designed instructional assistant supports will continue to play a valuable role in teaching students with autism and other disabilities, teams should explore alternative supports that facilitate teacher re-engagement with these students.

When I recently spoke with teachers and instructional assistants about this, I discovered their most helpful tool was to sit down together and come up with a mutual plan, in writing, of team norms.

Another trick they shared that can help the teacher/instructional assistant relationship is to develop a co-teaching sign language. Instead of saying aloud, “Hey, Ms.X, we’re going to ignore that behavior right now”—which doesn’t actually ignore the behavior but rather calls the student’s attention to your reaction—using a silent, visual cue lets only the other adults in the room know what you’re doing.

In the book A Guide to Co-Teaching with Paraeducators, the authors outline a team approach for special education teachers and instructional assistants and encourage co-teaching modalities. When teachers and instructional assistants embrace the challenge of making their working relationship clear, they will soon see that it transforms and invigorates the classroom environment for the students they serve.

If you are a classroom teacher or Instructional Assistant and wish to receive robust training, the VCU Autism Center for Excellence (ACE) offers the Paraprofessionals in Autism (PARA) Project.The PARA Project provides professional development for paraprofessionals who serve students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the teachers with whom they work. The program is designed to create effective educational teams and improve learning for students with ASD.

The PARA Project provides training and resources on a variety of topics that are relevant to the needs of districts, schools, and instructional assistants. A range of formats is used so that information is easily accessible to anyone who may need it. Training is provided using both online and live formats. Registration is free.