This semester I have a wonderful group of college students, many of whom have spent years as assistant teachers or aides in early childhood and special education classrooms. I asked them this week to reflect on what they would want classroom teachers to know in order to work effectively with a teacher assistant in the future. Here are their suggestions:
Set Clear Expectations. Don’t assume an assistant knows what you want her to do. Be clear and specific: “Could you sit next to Ryan during group time and help keep him on task?” or “While I’m reading to the children at the carpet, please set up the tables for the science project.” Think through various parts of the day and divide up the tasks ahead of time so that you each know the role you’ll play.
Offer Respect. Treat the assistant like an equal. Your roles are different but both are important. The teacher assistant might have more experience in the school or with children than a new teacher does, so be sure to acknowledge this expertise. Speak in a way that is always professional. When there is conflict, clear the air and repair the relationship right away. Don’t let bad feelings fester. You don’t have to be friends, but you do have to be colleagues.
Communicate Frequently. Set aside regular times to meet together as a team and go over plans. Communicate appropriate school information, behavioral plans for children, curriculum goals, etc.
Empower Decision-Making. Give the assistant teacher the power to make decisions on her own. This helps keep the classroom running smoothly and also solidifies that team approach to teaching. Many teaching assistants also pointed out how important it is to teach them how to do your role as the classroom teacher for when you are not there.
Balance Teaching and Non-Teaching Expectations. Most teacher assistants enjoy taking on some teaching duties, such as leading small group activities, collecting anecdotal records, or working one-on-one with a child. However, remember that an assistant is not getting paid to be the teacher, and may not have the training or experience to take on teaching roles. Be sure to check what the school policies are. The best advice came from a long-time teacher who began her relationship with each assistant she’s had by asking her assistant teacher what she would like to do in the classroom. Over time she found that building on her assistant’s strengths was very effective, rather than trying to get her to do what she wasn’t comfortable with.
Use Positive Feedback. Most important of all, perhaps, is to provide high-quality, positive feedback. Just as children need to know when they are on the right track, adults do too. Give plenty of detail in your feedback: “Thanks so much for helping during circle time. When you sit next to Sheena she pays attention much better.” Or “I noticed that you got all the small group materials ready and organized today. That helped the transition to group activities go really smoothly!” This is especially effective when an assistant teacher is not doing as well as you’d like. Remember to focus always on the positive, make clear requests, and avoid getting caught in a negative-energy spiral. Remember that what you pay attention to you will get more of!
Do you have any suggestions for what has worked well in building a team with your assistant teacher? Or are you an assistant teacher who’d like to give more feedback? Please share with us in the comments!