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By Kent Gerlach
The changing landscape of public education has had a significant impact on the roles of the personnel who serve in our schools. Teacher shortages, increasing numbers of English language learners, and the rising enrollment of students with disabilities and other special needs are just some of the factors that make the need for a dynamic school team more necessary than ever (Gerlach, 2002). To be successful, teachers and paraeducators must view themselves as teams and partners in the educational process.
A common thread across definitions of teams is that teamwork can be defined as a process among partners who share mutual goals and work together to achieve the goals. Teamwork allows people to discuss their work together and, as a result, to grow professionally.
Input from all team members needs to be solicited. Questions need to be asked and answered. Ideas need to be shared. Teamwork doesnt happen by accident. It requires effort and commitment, and a willingness to accept the challenges of working together.
Team effectiveness can be achieved by sharing expectations with one another, by allowing the paraeducator to participate in the planning process, by appreciating each others unique personality traits, by respecting diversity, and by demonstrating a positive attitude toward teamwork. Once a team works well together, the job is less stressful, more enjoyable, more rewarding for all team members, and results in greater benefit to students.
According to a review of research on team effectiveness done by Abelson and Woodman (1983), a team that has just formed usually has some or all of the following characteristics:
These characteristics are important for us to consider when focusing on the teacher-paraeducator team.
If a team is to be effective, all members must have a clear understanding of and agreement on the team goals. The elements of a goal include (a) what is to be achieved; (b) a measure of accomplishment how we will know when the outcome has been reached; and, (c) the time factor when we want to have the goal completed. The goals of the team must be developed with input from all team members, and roles and responsibilities of both teacher and paraeducator in achieving the goals must be clearly defined. Several factors need to be considered in determining these roles and responsibilities. They include experience, training, comfort level, time constraints, and knowledge levels of individual team members. Together, the teacher and other professional practitioners and the paraeducator determine what needs to be done, by whom, and by when, clearly defining roles, responsibilities, and expectations.
Leadership is a critical factor for team success in achieving goals. The leader is always the teacher or another school professional who has been designated as the paraeducators supervisor. The supervisors role is similar to that of a coach. It involves assessing the paraeducators skills and helping the paraeducator use them to the fullest. Paraeducators contribute more effectively when they are coached and encouraged to make optimal use of their strengths and resources. A supervisor provides direction and ideas, helps identify alternatives, raises questions, and supplies feedback. One way to understand that role is through the mentoring model.
The teacher who mentors paraeducators shares invaluable knowledge and skills. Mentoring is a process whereby teachers and paraeducators work together to discover and develop paraeducators abilities, and to provide paraeducators with knowledge and skills as opportunities and needs arise. The teacher as a supervisor, mentor, and team leader should do the following:
A mentor models and demonstrates effective practice; uses good communication strategies, showing both respect and recognition; and lays the foundation for building trust in teams.
Trust between team members is necessary to a productive working environment, and trust is built in teams by promoting open communication, providing fair leadership, and supervising with sensitivity (Pickett & Gerlach, in press).
It is essential for all team members to practice open, honest communication in order to increase awareness and build cooperation. Effective communication expresses a team members beliefs, ideas, needs or feelings. Communication must facilitate the free flow or exchange of ideas, information, and instruction that contribute to common understanding. When ideas are shared, there is opportunity for evaluation and input that can build even better ideas. From each new experience, more ideas can be developed and tried. All team members also need to develop listening skills so that they can obtain sufficient and accurate information necessary for an effective working relationship. Successful communication results in a mutual understanding of what was sent and what was heard. This component of trust promotes loyalty and commitment to achieve the goals of the team.
Closely related to this is fair leadership. A fair leader gives open, honest feedback and sets the tone for constructive dialog among team members.
Complementing fairness is sensitivity. A leader who supervises with sensitivity provides team members with leadership support that acknowledges the value of each paraeducators contribution to team success, as well as the diverse needs of each team member.
Tying together all these elements, the following questions can be used to assess the effectiveness of teacher and paraeducator teams:
The interdependent working relationship of todays paraeducators, teachers, and principals is often like a jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, they dont have a picture on the front of a box to know what the puzzle is supposed to look like when its finished. Sometimes they dont even have all the pieces. Thats why, in todays education climate, the most successful schools operate as a team. When paraeducators, teachers, and principals team up to connect the pieces of the puzzle, students are the ultimate beneficiaries.
Abelson, M.A. & Woodman, R.W. (1983). Review of research on team effectiveness: Implications for teams in schools. School Psychology Review, 12, pp 125-36.
Gerlach, K. (2002). Lets Team Up. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association.
Pickett, A.,& Gerlach, K., (in press). Supervising Paraeducators in Educational Settings. Austin, Texas: Pro-Ed Publishers.
Kent Gerlach is Professor in the School of Education at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. He can be reached at 253/535-7277 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The publication Lets Team Up: A Checklist for Paraeducators, Teachers, and Principals by Kent Gerlach is available from the National Education Association Professional Library, 800/229-4200 or http://www.efastcom.com/NEABookstore/control/main. It includes tips for teachers on working effectively with paraeducators, practical suggestions for paraeducators on clarifying their jobs and their relationships with students and school staff, and advice for principals on administrative supervision of paraeducators.
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Resources: Resources Related to Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk
Citation: Gaylord, V., Wallace, T., Pickett, A. L., and Likins, M. (Eds.). (2002). Impact: Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk, 15(2) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from http://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/152.
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