Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)
Chapter 14. Networking With Professionals
Staying connected with students is certainly related to success in your job. However, it is just as important to network with others in your school and the community. You are actually part of a team that delivers coordinated services to students. Because you can’t be expected to know and do it all, you can rely on other professionals for support, for students’ welfare as well as academic achievement. For this reason, it is important to know what resources are available and how to access them.
Teachers are members of a helping profession, along with others who are part of the school team: counselors, psychologists, special-education experts, nurses, librarians, media consultants, and a host of others who keep the school running. Your fellow teachers and staff will guide you through forms that have to be completed, field trip permission procedures, fire drills, and acquiring classroom supplies. They will also help you get to know the resources in the community, which is especially important if you have just relocated. They will become a support system for you.
There was an older girl in my (Ellen’s) high school, mixed-age Spanish I class who grimly made her way to her seat each day. She knew a few words in the language but was not progressing well. She looked disheveled and tired, with gray splotches under her eyes. She seemed to try and concentrate but never participated in discussions.
After several brief conversations with her, I learned that she worked a steady job in a local restaurant. Not too long ago, this student had been burned while taking pizzas out of the oven. In addition, she had just found out she was pregnant. Furthermore, she had no health insurance and no support from her family. No wonder she had little motivation to learn Spanish!
I realized there was only so much I could do for this young woman. We talked about her situation, and I told her about the community health department resource that I thought might be helpful—to look at her wounds, and explain the implications of her pregnancy and her need for medical care. I also referred her to the school nurse.
In addition, I contacted her school counselor and involved the school social worker, because this student had quite a number of problems related to her family, her boyfriend, and important decisions related to her pregnancy and future plans. As much as the girl seemed to trust me, I knew that I didn’t have the time or the proper training to handle this all on my own. I needed help, and I was glad that it was available to relieve my burden—not just the workload, but the emotional stress of caring so much about kids like this girl and feeling like there is so little that I can do on my own.
There are a number of situations that may present themselves for which you will want to enlist the help of others. If you suspect that one of your students is being physically or sexually abused, or neglected, for example, you must report such observations right away. If you believe a student is in danger of hurting himself or herself, or someone else, you must take immediate action as well. For instances such as these and other presenting issues, you will want to consult with other professionals associated with the school and district.
For various behavior problems you’re unable to deal with on your own, there are a number of people you can consult—first of all, the parents of the offending child. Use them as consultants just as you would any other professional available. Talk to your department chair or a more experienced teacher who is willing to mentor you. They may be able to provide some insight if they have had the student in the past or someone with similar behavior. In addition, make use of the following resources as needed:
School Counselor. A great source of help is the guidance counselor. The counselor can call in a student to talk about behavior without any negative repercussions (i.e., the student isn’t “in trouble”). A counselor can talk to students in private. Also, you can ask the counselor to come to the classroom and do a general program, for everyone, on communication skills, self-esteem, cooperation, or decision-making skills. If a student comes to you to talk about a problem that makes you uncomfortable—drugs, birth control, pregnancy—or you sense a problem situation, such as abuse or neglect, then conferring with the counselor will help you determine whether to make a referral for the student to see the counselor directly. As a transition to having the student meet one-on-one with the counselor, the three of you might talk together first.
One other function counselors serve is as consultants for teachers. Feel free to talk to a counselor you trust about some of your own doubts and concerns or as a way to deal with your own stress. As an ex-counselor and current counselor educator, let me (Jeffrey) reassure you that one of the best parts of our job is working with teachers directly. I really appreciated it when teachers came to me for advice or support. Motivated teachers are a pleasure to work with.
Administration. Likewise, you can ask a dean or an assistant principal to intervene on your behalf and talk to a student, without initiating a formal disciplinary procedure. In addition to the advantage of an outside party acting as a mediator in a conflict, such a person offers the benefit of a private office where he or she and the student can talk without fear of interruption or a class change.
Other Teachers. Talk to other teachers as much as you can. Find out how the problem child behaves in other classes. If you work as part of a team, perhaps someone else can speak to the child on your behalf. This will send a message to the student that everyone is aware of his or her behavior, that everyone is paying attention to him or her, and they expect improvement.
School Psychologist. If there are truly serious problems with behavior, then a referral will likely need to be made to the school psychologist or someone in the community—a physician for medication review, a psychologist for regular therapy, or some other specialist who can deliver the kind of intensive, individualized service that may be required. It isn’t your job to make these direct referrals on your own, but it is a good idea to know what options and services are available, should the need arise.
Special Education Facilitator. If you feel a student has serious academic or emotional problems, there will be a referral procedure for you to follow, beginning with forms to fill out that require observation and descriptions and/or examples of the student’s behavior and work. The next step may be referral to a screening committee made up of school personnel. There will be an informational meeting with the student’s parent(s) or guardian(s). Permission for testing will be required. It may take some time before the testing can be scheduled, and then the results will have to be evaluated. Additional meetings will be held with the parent(s) or guardian(s). If at this point it is discovered that the student does have a special need, then an individual education plan (IEP) will be written by a team with a lead special-education teacher.
The IEP will take into account the abilities of the student. Specific objectives will be identified with accommodations and modifications noted. The special-education teacher will be able to suggest strategies for you to use to accomplish the objectives for which you would be responsible. You will need to make adjustments in the learning expectations and assessments, and extra help may be made available to the student. If support is warranted, the student may have the opportunity to go to a resource room during your class period, or the resource teacher will be able to come to your room to help. Both instances require good communication between the classroom teacher and the resource teacher.
Nurse. It’s surprising how often you may come into contact with the school nurse and health aide(s). For various health emergencies—a student fainting or having a seizure, for example—you will need to immediately contact the health office and/or the principal. If the situation is one of great risk, other emergency medical service people will be called. Injuries that occur in physical education, such as a twisted ankle that later swells up, might not show up until your class. Medical emergencies, such as asthma or serious allergy attacks, may take place in your room. In each of these cases, you must take appropriate steps to make sure the student receives proper medical care. Most schools provide teachers with a list of students who have reported medical problems, from epilepsy to bee sting allergies, so they can be monitored. The information will also tell what to do and whom to contact if these situations arise.
Librarian. The school librarian will be a great resource for you as well for academic concerns. Not only does he or she know the interests and ability levels of the students, but will also be able to match materials to their needs and interests. In addition, the librarian’s relationships with students will be very different from yours, as he or she maintains contact with the students over 3 or 4 years and can get to know them very well. Frequently, the librarian is also responsible for the audiovisual materials, including videotapes and laser discs, as well as CDs and DVDs. He or she will be able to make recommendations for electronic and print references for you and your students, depending on what you are looking for.
Curriculum Specialists. Many districts have curriculum specialists in the central office. Their responsibilities typically include curriculum development, textbook adoption, and professional development in the content area. They are often available to meet individually with new teachers to provide curriculum support—teaching strategies—and acquaint you with resources. They will help you develop lessons that are interesting and relevant for students, captivating and keeping their attention, reducing or eliminating the need for further discipline problems.
Other Specialists. Consultants are also available to you in the area of technology. A computer specialist or information technology (IT) resource person, for example, will most likely be able to help you with software programs and/or hardware problems that arise. Such a person may even provide you with periodic targeted training.
Another valuable person is the learning strategist, if your district has one. The function of this person is to provide support and help teachers develop the resources needed to teach a particular concept. They may demonstrate a lesson or present methods and materials to the classroom teacher. In addition, they may help the teacher evaluate learning styles. The strategist may come from one of many backgrounds, such as literacy or technology.
If you are not already assigned to a team, consider organizing one yourself. There are many wonderful interdisciplinary projects that can challenge your students if you coordinate your lessons with people in other fields. From studying earthquakes to the Middle Ages, teachers can work together to coordinate their efforts. Set times for planning together. Consult about your time schedules for student tests and projects. Divide the evaluation chores evenly so no one feels overburdened. Keep the communication lines open. Even if you just work with another teacher in your field, you can combine your efforts and learn from one another, and the students will only benefit.
With the mainstreaming of special-needs students in the classroom, more schools have paraprofessional educators available to help classroom teachers. As a result, you may have an adult in your classroom, under your supervision, who will be able to work directly with students. While this may seem like an overwhelming responsibility in the beginning, as time goes on, you will see great benefits.
As in any collaborative relationship, you will need to spend some time when you first meet this person to get to know his or her strengths and resources, as well as limitations. Find out what types of experience he or she brings to the classroom. If the aide has a history in the school and the community, this paraprofessional can also serve as a resource to explain school traditions and procedures, as well as identify resource people for you. They may have seen effective teaching in the past and will be able to make constructive suggestions, if you are open to them. Be sure to arrange a set meeting time each week to go over your lesson plans and discuss how and when the paraprofessional will interact with the students. Open communication will help assure a healthy working relationship.
In your initial discussion, explain your philosophy of education, your discipline policy, and what routines you will establish. Clarify with the paraprofessional exactly what his or her duties will be and what authority he or she has. You may need to provide some instruction as to how to best interact with the students and how to implement your discipline policy. You may need to review IEPs together. The paraeducator will be able to spend time during class reviewing and reinforcing vocabulary, concepts, and skills you present, as well as help with individual assignments. Help the person feel welcome in your room by providing work space—a desk or table—in your room, and giving him or her a copy of your text and instructional materials.
Districts vary as to the type of responsibilities given to paraeducators and the role they play as part of an educational team, so you will need to follow the guidelines in your school. While you may be tempted to have the paraprofessional take care of clerical and copying tasks, that would not be appropriate. Increased professional development opportunities are becoming available for paraprofessionals as well, so be sure to pass on such information and encourage participation. Also, you will want to find out what the current union policies are, especially with respect to hours of work, break times, and job responsibilities.
WORKING WITH PEOPLE IN THE COMMUNITY
To add academic richness and diversity to your class, recruit people from the community to visit your students. Retired persons, for example, are often hungry for opportunities to share their lifelong expertise. Bring in guest speakers, arrange for demonstrations, and put on performances. Professional organizations and businesses usually have lists of speakers and presentations available for school children. Check to see if your school already has established partnerships in the community. Media people may be willing to visit your classroom to talk about relevant issues. Draw on experts and resources from the local universities. Most important, make a point of involving parents as contributors.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
The important thing to remember, as a beginning teacher, is that you are not alone. There are a number of formal channels in place that can provide you with support and networking to do your job and deal with any challenges that arise. Informal networking is also invaluable, not only to help you deal with immediate problems but also to continue your own growth and education as a professional.