Having worked in education for more than 20 years, I have had opportunities to work with some amazing paraprofessionals. In reflecting on what it is that has made these experiences ones I look back on fondly, I believe it’s all the things that we know make a good working relationship in general:

  • Communication
  • Mutual respect
  • Valuing everyone as part of the team

To build positive working relationships, paraprofessionals and special education teachers should identify the key ingredients to making this relationship succeed. According to the paraprofessionals and special educators I work with, the following are the most important things to keep in mind to work effectively as a team.

Advice from Paraprofessionals

Paraprofessionals have often worked in the field of special education for many years. I know at the high school where I work, there are many people who have made a career of being a paraprofessional and wouldn’t have it any other way.

According to these seasoned paraprofessionals, to be good team players special educators need to:

  1. Have a sense of humor.
  2. Be willing to get your hands dirty (i.e., don’t ask us to do something you wouldn’t do).
  3. Share your appreciation of my help, especially when we go above and beyond what is expected.
  4. Keep the lines of communication open between all team members—therapists, teachers, paraprofessionals, etc.
  5. Always focus on the students’ needs first.
  6. Support us even if you would have done things differently.
  7. Treat us with respect, not as your subordinates.
  8. Please communicate the student’s needs, goals and accommodations from the IEP. We often don’t get a copy of this document.
  9. Respect that we are a valued part of the team.
  10. Get to know us as people so we can have a positive relationship.
  11. Know that we value any training and professional development that will help us support our students.

Advice from Teachers

Teaching and having their own classroom is something most education majors think—or dare I say, dream—about when studying to be a teacher. So what happens when they walk into their classroom and are expected to share? Sure, sharing the responsibility and workload can be a relief, but sometimes this is also a difficult thing for teachers because they are eager to put what they’ve learned into place and run their own classroom. This can be especially tricky when a first-year teacher, who is often in their early 20s, is asked to “supervise” paraprofessionals who not only have been in the field for a long time but may also have been in the building for many years.

Here are the thoughts of both veteran and new teachers on what special educators need to know when working with paraprofessionals:

  1. Include paraprofessionals in creating plans for students.
  2. Understand that the paraprofessionals know the students and bring knowledge that can’t be taught in a classroom.
  3. Be respectful of each other’s differences.
  4. Always have each other’s backs even if you don’t agree with how something is handled.
  5. Realize that if paraprofessionals do things differently than you, different isn’t always bad.
  6. Be open to teaching each other.
  7. Lead by example.
  8. Be sure to point out things that you see the paraprofessional doing well.
  9. Keep a positive attitude.
  10. If there is a problem, discuss it with the paraprofessional. Do not talk about it to other staff members.

In comparing the advice from both paraprofessionals and teachers, there are some clear overlaps. The main takeaway? To foster productive relationships between paraprofessionals and teachers, we must realize that we all come to the team with different strengths that should be celebrated and utilized. Communication is key, and it’s much easier to communicate with someone when you have mutual respect.

Finally, it’s so important for us to remember that we are all here to support our students. When we put them first and work as a team, it makes a much better environment for our students and increases the chances that we will enjoy our jobs and each other. Together, paraprofessionals and teachers have the power to truly make a difference.

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About the Author
Jennifer Schmidt has spent 23 years as a general education teacher, autism consultant and special educator. She is currently a high school teacher, a college instructor, and an experienced national and international presenter. Jennifer recently published her first book on the use of peer modeling and other evidence-based practices to teach social skills to students with autism. Jennifer earned a Master of Education degree in Special Education from Wright State University.