Paraprofessionals and education support personnel (ESPs) play a critical role in supporting English language learners (ELLs) in classrooms across the country. This support can have even more of an impact when it is part of a collaborative, positive partnership with classroom teachers and ELL specialists in their school community.
However, sometimes that support is overlooked, misunderstood, or underutilized. Here are some ideas for educators who work with paraprofessionals to build partnerships on behalf of ELLs, compiled from the following veteran educators:
- Joni Anderson, ELL Paraprofessional (AFT ELL Cadre Member)
- Ingrid Miera, ELL Paraprofessional (AFT ELL Cadre Member)
- Michelle Lawrence Biggar, ELL Educator
See more in the related article, 15 ELL Strategies for Paraprofessionals.
Creating Strong Partnerships
Partnering with ELL specialists
If you are new to working with ELLs, it's important to understand what ELL specialists do and how you can work together. Learn more in What is an ELL educator?
1. Get to know the paraprofessional in your classroom
Relationships are the foundation of collaboration. Get to know each other by introducing yourself (ideally before instruction has started) and sharing a bit about yourself. You may also wish to talk a little bit about your experience with ELLs and why you enjoy working with ELLs. If this is your first time working with a paraprofessional, let them know you are new to this kind of collaboration and ask them what has worked well in other classrooms they have supported. In addition, look for ways to make sure the paraprofessional feels welcome in your classroom or work space.
2. Get to know the paraprofessional's strengths
Paraprofessionals bring important strengths to their work in the classroom and with ELLs. Examples of different types of strengths include the following:
- Strong student and family relationships
- Experience in providing targeted instructional support
- Familiarity with how to differentiate and support different students
- Behavior management skills
- Advocacy skills
- Language skills
3. Discuss what classroom support will look like
Talk about how paraprofessionals will be supporting students, and ensure you both have the opportunity to share prior arrangements that have worked well in the past.
- Will the support be one-on-one, or in small groups?
- Will the paraprofessional be walking around the room?
- If the paraprofessional is bilingual, how and when will they be providing language support?
- Are there meetings the paraprofessional needs to attend?
4. Invite the paraprofessional's input
Your paraprofessional is a resource, especially if they have worked with ELLs in the past. In fact, they may have more experience in this arena than their partner teachers. Invite their suggestions and let them know that their input is welcome; they are likely to have valuable insights and ideas that they will share if they feel comfortable doing so.
5. Clarify how paraprofessionals will communicate with families
Another important aspect to clarify is whether paraprofessionals are expected to communicate with families, especially if they are bilingual. Keep in mind that while paraprofessionals may speak multiple languages and may actively be in touch with families, they should not be relied upon for translation or interpretation if that is not part of their official job description and training.
If you find that others are calling upon the paraprofessional for interpretation and it's interrupting their class time, look for ways to curb that practice and establish boundaries that protect the paraprofessional's time.
Note: See more in this helpful chart about the difference between bilingual staff and interpreters. Also keep in mind that schools are legally required to provide families with information in their home languages. If you feel that appropriate language access is not being provided, bring your concern to an administrator.
Communication and Planning
6. Establish clear communication procedures
Establishing open and clear communication is crucial to any kind of partnership. Some things you might wish to discuss early are:
- How each person prefers to communicate, both in terms of communication style and tools (e-mail, meeting, messaging, etc.)
- Systems for regular, ongoing communication
- How and when you are both going to share feedback and suggestions
- How to handle last-minute changes or adjustments that are needed
Also keep in mind that the paraprofessional may have other roles and responsibilities; respect those commitments and work together to find solutions to any scheduling challenges.
7. Include paraprofessionals in planning, collaboration, and meetings
Where possible, it is beneficial to include paraprofessionals in lesson planning. This provides a better chance for alignment in instruction and support. If it's not possible to meet together, you can collaborate by sharing lesson plans and materials over email and online.
- Consider scheduling a regular meeting time to look together at lesson plans, standards, and language objectives.
- Discuss what is working or not with individual students/groups.
- Keep in mind that paraprofessionals who are supporting special education students should be included in student meetings and conversations with families; they are likely to have valuable insights and may be in contact with the families.
- Consider whether paraprofessionals' schedules can allow for them to grade-level, department, or team meetings. If you need to make a case for this kind of participation, collaborate with paraprofessionals to gather data and examples of how their participation can support students.
Advocacy and Professional Growth
8. Attend professional development and training as teams
- Paraprofessionals will benefit from ELL professional development. When possible, ensure that they are included in school-wide training so that everyone is on the same page. Paraprofessionals, classroom teachers, administrators, and ELL specialists can all play a role in advocating for those opportunities.
- Paraprofessionals can also benefit from attending district, state, or national conferences as well.
- Paraprofessionals who work frequently with ELLs may also be in a position to lead training for colleagues, which can spotlight their expertise and offer leadership opportunities.
Note: If advocacy around this issue is needed, paraprofessionals can share detailed examples of how ongoing professional development has helped them strengthen their practice and the difference it has made in their work with ELLs, as well as resources that have helped them in their work.
9. Lift up paraprofessionals' strengths
Paraprofessionals are a critical part of school communities. Lift up their contributions through the following:
- Show your appreciation on a regular basis.
- Share paraprofessionals' strengths with others.
- Share examples of success from the classroom or from your collaboration.
- Ensure that paraprofessionals are included in key meetings and decisions.
- Ensure that paraprofessionals are treated with respect and fairness in different settings.
10. Advocate and promote a culture of respect within your school community
All educators and staff members have a part to play in creating a culture of respect within a school community. Keep in mind that respect is part of feeling engaged, valued, and supported within a working environment. To help foster that culture:
- Commit to treating all of your colleagues with respect, even in moments of disagreement.
- Talk with paraprofessionals about how they feel within the community.
- Ensure that other colleagues feel welcome in your workspace.
- Bring any issues or troubling trends to the attention of administrators to ensure they get the attention they deserve.
Video: How I provided tech support to multilingual families during COVID-19
Carla Fernandes, a multilingual paraprofessional in Brockton Public Schools (MA), speaks Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese. In this interview clip, she describes how she helped families navigate new technology during COVID-19 and how the word spread that she could provide important support.
Video: Engaging the Whole School Staff in Trauma-Informed Practice
Every person who works in a school makes an impact on a child’s life. Ricky Robertson explores why a whole-school approach is needed to address the impact of adverse childhood experiences and trauma. He also discusses the valuable roles that Education Support Professionals (e.g., paraeducators, transportation staff, etc.) and Specialized Instructional Support Personnel (e.g., school counselors, nurses, etc.) play in creating supportive learning communities. In this episode, Mr. Robertson highlights ways that all faculty and staff can make sure that every student is known by name and by need.