Teacher to teacher: How I help students see support staff as teachers

“I don’t want to go to speech therapy,” says one student. 

“You’re not my teacher. I don’t have to listen to what you say!” cries another student to a paraprofessional. 

Speech therapists, ESL teachers, paraprofessionals, and school counselors are just some of the adults who support my students each day. I see them as my support team, and they help me create a classroom filled with respect, empathy, learning, and fun. 

But my students don’t always see the importance of these other teachers. As a special education teacher, one of my goals is to support my students in developing genuine relationships with all the adults who support their learning. 

Here are four ways I help my students see support staff as their teachers, too: 

1. I refer to them as teachers.

When introducing students to someone from my support team, I refer to them as a teacher. “What did you learn with your speech teacher today?” sounds very different from, “What did you do in speech therapy today?” It changes students’ perspectives on their relationships with support staff. I recognize that these adults need to build their own relationships with my students. But this small shift in language can be a start. 

2. I help students’ families understand the role of my support team.

I want my students’ families to see my support team as teachers, too. This helps create a cohesive experience between home and school. I also want families to feel comfortable asking them any questions they have. Families may not always understand why their child needs services and who provides them. So at the beginning of the school year, I communicate with families, sharing bios (translated into various home languages) and photos of my support team. I reinforce that this staff person is a teacher and encourage an open line of communication with all their child’s teachers, not just me.

3. I regularly consult with my support team about our curriculum. 

When my students work with paraprofessionals, specialists, or other staff members, I don’t want it to feel like a separate lesson. Rather, it should be an extension of what we’re learning in the classroom. I do this by making sure my support team understands the curriculum and students’ progress with it. 

Before each new unit, I meet with my support team. I explain the curriculum, ways to support students, and how a specific specialist’s goals might align with what we’re working on. I do this outside of teaching time like at preps, lunches, or before or after school. I know it can be challenging to find this extra time to meet, but it has been a worthwhile investment for me. 

Here’s an example of how I make working with support staff an extension of our classroom. My student had a session with the occupational therapist. I said to the student, “In class, we’re working on publishing our writing. You’re going to work with Ms. A. on making sure that this published piece is clear so your friends and family can read it.” Before the session, I talked with Ms. A., the occupational therapist. We discussed how the student’s fine motor skills prevented publishing legible work, which was one of their IEP goals. Because of our discussion, the student was able to publish the essay while working on pencil grip and legible writing. 

4. I make sure all work matters in our classroom.

My students know that their work is an important step toward completing a goal. When they know that all their work matters — no matter who supports it — they’re more likely to engage. They also know that we’ll share and reflect on completed work, regardless of the support received to produce it. It changes how kids feel about a session with a specialist or small group time with a paraprofessional. It may have felt like a chore before, but now it’s something they’re more eager to do.

For example, when my students were working on verbal responses, one had prepared hers with a speech teacher. She knew that the next day the class would be practicing their responses with peers. Because the student prepared and practiced during her speech session, she felt ready for the next day. 

The same applies to my support team. They know I appreciate what they do and that I support their work. They know they can count on me to reinforce the skills and strategies they teach. 

Even though I’ve worked hard to develop strong relationships with my students, those relationships don’t automatically transfer to the other adults my students interact with. These strategies help me foster relationships between my students and my support team. They help students see that each teacher — including paraprofessionals, specialists, and other support staff — guides them in their learning journey. 

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