Monday, March 26, 2012

What Do I Do With the Big Kid?: Reflections on Teacher Aides and Consultant Teachers

by Douglas W. Green, EdD

When I became principal in 1993, there were two classroom aides in my school and they were both in self-contained special education rooms where all of the students were classified and had individual education plans (IEPs). Thirteen years later the school had 28 classroom aides scattered throughout the school. Each class in grades K-2 had one as the classified kids were spread out in all of the classes. In grades 3-5 they were shared between two classes and each of these classes had an aide. In addition, there were special education teachers who worked with the classroom teachers to meet the needs of the kids with IEPs. This presented a new set of challenges for myself and the classroom teachers. I will explain some of the problems and give advice for administrators and teachers who face this issue.
As with many educational problems, this one is caused in part by some teacher preparation programs that do not deal with how to use support staff in the classroom. When you have an aide and perhaps a push-in support teacher, every lesson plan you make should include how to make effective use of your help. Otherwise you end up with people either standing around or relying on their own initiative, which may run counter to what you had in mind. The role of the other adults needs to be communicated before things start. This takes time, which is usually at a premium in most classrooms. In the case of the supporting teacher, it also needs to include joint planning so the contributions of both teachers can be combined for the maximum impact. In any case, the teachers need to agree on the game plan before the game begins. While aides should not be counted on to contribute to the plan, their input should be accepted if they offer it as they might have some good ideas to share.
For someone who is used to having a classroom all to themselves, this can be daunting. Consulting special education teachers with experience teaching their own classes may also feel frustrated, as they will have less opportunity to run with their own ideas. Initially, the classroom teacher and the support teacher(s) need to establish an understanding regarding who will make what kind of contributions. This can vary greatly. I have seen situations where the classroom teacher does all the planing, directs all the lessons, and the support teacher simply wanders about giving help to individuals and groups as needed. At the other end I have seen the classroom teacher and the support teacher take turns running the show. In any case, it is vital that both understand their individual roles regarding planning, presentation, and assessment.
As a principal, it was my job to hire aides and pair them with the teachers who where scheduled to have one. I some of the self-contained special education classes, there were multiple aides. Although I used my best judgement and worked very hard at the hiring process, there were many times when the personalities of the teacher and the aide didn’t fit. The same was often true when I paired classroom teachers and special education support teachers. It usually wasn’t hard to tell when a team wasn’t working well. It was usually the teachers who came to me with issues, but it wasn’t unusual for aides to do the same. In the case of teachers who weren’t working well as a team, I simply waited until the end of the year before making a move. With aides, however, I did make some moves in the middle of the year when I had two situations that were far less than ideal. I used the metaphor of the “forced marriage” to help me understand why failed partnerships were part of the deal.
I addition to giving the aide specific direction, a teacher needs to be willing to correct the aide if the person is not doing what they were asked to do or acting in an inappropriate manner. This can be difficult for a teacher who is not comfortable correcting another adult who they are supervising. Principals have specific training in supervision. Teachers generally do not, but they should. If a teacher sees that an aide is not doing what is expected, they must address it. Tact is key as the students need to see the relationship between the adults in the room as a model for their behavior. Something like “Mrs. X would you please do Y at this time, thanks so much” in a cheerful tone of voice should work. 
In some cases undesirable behavior needs to be addressed after the students leave. One issue that often comes up in the case of aide behavior is the use of a loud or sarcastic tone of voice. I think of “yelling” as throwing gas on a fire. It often just makes things worse in terms of student behavior. If yelling worked there wouldn’t be any discipline problems. When you correct an aide for undesirable behavior, you need to be as specific as possible about what the person did, and what you expect them to do. This can be done with a kind tone of voice, but it needs to come across as a serious request. At the same time, the teacher should document the incident in case it happens again and in the event it continues. 
Worst case, the aide may have to be fired. This is something that few teachers and many administrators have the stomach for, but it needs to happen if it is in the best interests of the students. The teacher needs to let the principal know early on that a given aide may not be cut out for the job. By tipping off the principal regarding an aide’s behavior, the principal can be on the lookout for such behavior. Direct observation by the principal is the best way to get things moving in terms of a process that may lead to termination if efforts to help are ineffective. If the principal isn’t willing to take action. then the teacher needs to persevere in the effort to change behavior. 
In some cases an aide may be critical of a teacher. If this happens in front of students, it must be addressed and documented as soon as the students leave. If it happens in front of the principal, the teacher needs to let the aide know that trust has been broken and needs to be rebuilt if their relationship is to prosper in the interests of the children. It is possible, however, for an aide to be critical in a constructive manner in private. If this happens the teacher should reflect on the input and thank the aide for their attempt to help. 
During my 30-year career as an administrator I was involved in disciplinary action much more with support staff than with teaching staff. Some aides are amazing and naturals at helping teachers and students. Some can learn to be effective with professional help. Others are probably best looking for work somewhere else where their talents fit better with the job. In all cases they are low paid, usually get good health benefits, and work the school calendar and only six hours a day. For some this is attractive. For others, the low pay is something that is bothersome. I would also advise principals to use aide openings to make their staff more diverse. In my district it was difficult to attract non-white teachers. This was not the case, however, when hiring aides.

Dr. Douglas W. Green, EdD has been an educator since 1970. After teaching chemistry, physics, and computer science, he became an administrator for the next 30 years with experience at the secondary, central office, and elementary levels. He also taught a number of leadership courses for The State University of New York at Cortland and Binghamton University, and authored over 300 articles in computer magazines and educational journals. In 2006 he gave up his job as an elementary principal to care for his wife who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. After her death in March of 2009 he decided to see how he could use his expertise to help busy educators and parents hone their skills and knowledge. Be sure to check his book summaries and net nuggets at for daily, bite-sized self development.

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