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How to build positive relationships with instructional assistants

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Working with instructional assistants can present both opportunities and challenges.

I have had the good fortune to work with some of the most talented, kind, and compassionate people as instructional assistants. That doesn’t mean it was always smooth sailing though.

Working with others is a relationship. You will see this person eight hours a day, 5 days a week. You will have misunderstandings and miscommunications. 

Below I have outlined how to make the most of this relationship.

Don't be a tyrant-asaurus rex

Don’t be a tyrant 

Teachers, in my experience, can become a little territorial. “This is MY room” and “these are MY kids” were among common refrains I would hear, no matter where I went. 

In many ways, teachers are encouraged in these ideas. They seldom are afforded the ability to work side by side with another person in their classroom.

This can make people a little covetous of their classes. 

Don’t do that. 

Your instructional assistant is not yours to command. Any relationship that starts with you as the dictator, no matter how benevolent, will not end well. 

Before you begin to work with an instructional assistant, make sure you have this mantra down:

“We are working together to make a better class environment for everyone.”

The first person you may need to train is yourself. Make sure you are ready and willing to listen to ideas. Make sure you can invite an equal adult to your decision-making table before you do anything else. 

It may feel a little prickly at first. However, you will find that someone who doesn’t feel they need to wait for your every directive is much easier to have in your class in the long run. 

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Define clear roles

The first thing you and your instructional assisting partner will need to hammer out is who does what in the classroom. 

This may be defined by your school. Certain grants and other sources of funding make the roles of instructional assistants very clear. To that end, speak to your administration first about what kinds of tasks are acceptable. If no such framework exists, then the decision is between you and your new teaching partner. 

Once you and your teaching partner know what the people in charge will expect it’s up to you to decide on the rest. 

Often times, people feel frustrated by their instructional assistants. This is because they don’t complete certain tasks in the class, but when asked “did you guys agree they would do that?” The answer tends to be “no”.

Instructional assistants are amazing people but they are not psychics! They can’t know what you want them to do if you never tell them. Be as clear as possible and ask if they need training to complete any task you both agree on. 

An example may be, that you hope they can collect behavior data. What does that mean? What does that look like? Will they be keeping written records? Should they email you? This is a skill they may need step by step instructions to complete to your satisfaction. 

By being clear about what each of you expects from the other you will nip so many misunderstandings in the bud. 

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Collaborate!

Now that you’re in the correct headspace let’s put it to good use.  

Your new teaching partner has likely worked in many different environments. They may have skills in areas that you have weaknesses. Maybe you’re a little disorganized, and they are amazingly organized. Maybe you miss small interactions between students during instruction, and they’re very attentive to them. These are just examples/possibilities. In reality, your instructional assistant teaching partner is likely full of skills. 

Keep an open dialogue between you both. Always solicit input when you’re thinking of making changes to the class. They’ll have input you hadn’t considered. Let it flow both ways. 

Make sure that when they have a good idea, you institute it and give them the credit when applicable. Everyone feels good when they’re celebrated and appreciated. 

They’re in your class every day. They can tell you when they think the room isn’t allowing for a good flow of student movement.  They may have insight when a procedure is inefficient. 

The point is: listen to them and take their ideas into account. Institute some of them, even if you aren’t sure they’ll work. You both can learn from the process 🙂 The classroom is a lab, you are always tinkering and trying something new is always worth it. 

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Give Them Space (Physically)

There are many nonverbal cues in the classroom which tell students information. A decorated board may say “important information here”. The arrangement of seats into pods says “this is a class where we work together”. One thing that speaks volumes is the teacher’s desk. This area is often decorated to your liking. It shows that you are the resident of this space that gets to make decisions. 

Ok, now assume there’s another adult in the room they should listen to and follow directions from. This person though has no such space. This demonstrates that they are less valuable. It shows that they don’t get to make important decisions and they may be someone who is an afterthought. 

That is not the message we want to send to students or instructional assistants. Even if an instructional assistant is only with you for a single hour, give them a space in your classroom to put their things. Put up a sign with their name near that space. 

Communicate to everyone that this person is a valued and equal member of the learning environment. 

 In addition to the psychological significance, this helps your instructional assistant be more efficient. They can store items they often use there without having to carry them on their person. It gives them a place to conference with students. All the reasons you need a desk, ditto for them. 

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Give Them Space (Metaphorically)

Your instructional assistant is not you. They don’t act the way you do, but that’s ok. Let them have their own ways of doing things, so long as they are positively contributing to the classroom environment. 

Give them the space to be themselves. Empower them with the ability to act independently of you.

I once worked in an Emotionally Impaired high school classroom. The instructional assistant I worked with was wonderful. She was a grandmother, and extremely kind-hearted. 

My approach was very different when working with students. While not unkind, was more solutions-oriented conversations. What I didn’t get back then is that sometimes, that’s not what people need. 

Sometimes kids just wanted to feel heard and cared for without having to make a plan to solve their problem. That was what she provided. Often after going for a walk with her, students would come back completely better and ready to learn. 

If I hadn’t given her space to be the kind (slightly coddling) person she is, my class would have been a much worse place. 

Give your teaching partner the same space to be themselves, and you’ll be glad you did. You have no idea what your class could be missing until it appears. 

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Model Cooperative Behavior 

Having a teaching partner in your classroom is a golden opportunity to show students what respectful, adult working relationships look like. They may not get a chance to see this very often, especially if they’re not in a sport. 

Do the obvious things you were taught as a kid. Say “please” and “thank you”. Ask how their day has been going.

Also, be willing to ask if they need assistance with something. Show the students that you work together. Not always being the one to dictate to your instructional assistant is a good way to show that. 

When you are able, have your instructional assistant take over leading certain tasks in the classroom. Maybe they could run your bell work every day or your ticket out the door activity. 

No matter what it is, make sure the students see both of you take an active role in the classroom in some way. Maybe they handle all supplies and passes, whatever it is, make sure they have a visible job in the class. 

Remember, your students are always watching and learning from you both. They know this is your workplace. How the two of you work together can become their idea of workplace behavior. 

Make sure they see that a functional workplace is one in which both parties are valued and respected. Hopefully, they will grow to demand such conditions in their future workplaces. 

Show everyone (including yourself) what amazing things can happen when people work together as equals!

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Manage Disagreements Respectfully

Even following all these guidelines, there are times you will not see eye to eye with your instructional assistant / teaching partner. It’s normal, natural and to be expected. 

Please repeat after me: “I will not correct my teaching partner in front of students”.

Got that? Good. 

As we discussed above, you send messages to your students all of the time. Correcting your instructional assistant in front of your students says loud and clear “my teacher is in charge and this person is not”. 

It’s not a good look. It’s demeaning and a terrible example to set for your students. You did all the work of being a lean-mean-modeling-team don’t throw it away now. 

Perhaps you can schedule 5-10 min in your day to decompress together. Share ideas, news, and vent to just let that shit go. 

That way, if something goes down in class you didn’t like, it’s time to use those open lines of communication. Come at all issues and problems from how they impact the classroom. 

Fist bump
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Make Disagreements into Opportunities

BAD way to disagree, “Why did you trigger Student today? You know he hates group work and you made him anyway. That’s why he acted out! Don’t make him join groups anymore.” 

GOOD way to disagree, “Student had an issue in class today. At their IEP we determined that group work is a big stressor for them. I guess we didn’t discuss that earlier and I really should have let you know. sorry I wasn’t clear about that. In the future, we should offer Student structured choice of which group they want to work with. What do you think?” 

See the difference? In one, you are blaming and dictating. In the other, you take responsibility for your role. You offer an alternative and solicit their input. 

Which conversation would you rather be a part of? Always speak to people you work with, in-kind, productive ways. That way you can preserve the relationship even when you are disagreeing.  

Sometimes, personalities clash. If you find yourself disagreeing too much or you are not a good fit as far as teaching styles go, you may decide together to work with other people. You both may seek reassignment from your administrative team. Even this can be handled respectfully. They’re likely feeling like it isn’t working as well. 

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Be Fair and Transparent in Your Role

Every school handles the evaluation of instructional assistants differently. Some of them are evaluated by administrators. Other by department chairs. In some places, the teacher they are working with is expected to evaluate them. 

Even when others do the actual evaluating the teacher or teachers they work with may be asked to submit input for the evaluation. 

Whatever your role is in the process be clear and upfront with your instructional assistant. Tell them what input you have been asked to provide. If you are in charge of their evaluation, make sure you provide them a rubric you will be using for that evaluation. 

Throughout the year provide them with the same feedback you will likely be offering to your evaluation team. That way, when that time comes, they won’t be surprised by anything you note. Show them any correspondence that pertains to them, CC them on emails that are about them. 

Being very open and transparent will build trust and show respect. It can also be very helpful in making your interactions more efficient.

Create a google doc with meetings you hold together, note what you discussed and share the file with them. Having that information in writing can help you both identify patterns of needs that keep coming up in class. It can also help you both see progress on projects you come up with together. 

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Remember: It takes time

Even following all of these suggestions, like all relationships, this one is going to take time. You will have more bumps at the beginning than if you have been working together for 10 years. 

At first, it may even seem hopeless, like you’re too different, but stick with it. 

Instructional Assisting is a hard job and often comes with little respect to boot. Some Assistants may be used to being little more than a glorified bathroom break for the teachers they worked with in the past. They may be a little leary of you at first. 

Be patient with the process and be open to learn. 

Some of the coolest people I have met in my whole life, I met working with them as instructional assistants. Many of which have remained my lifelong friends.

If you stay open, kind and positive you will find not only a great teammate but maybe a great friend too.

Any relationship worth growing is worth waiting for. Water it, give it sunlight and positive feedback, and most importantly: love it.  

This person chose to work with students. They probably don’t make a lot of money. They have a big heart. 

You can always work with a big heart. They may have a lot to learn. That’s totally okay. Work together. We all benefit from learning from one another. 

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