When I was a lead teacher MANY years ago, I had an interaction with an assistant teacher that disturbed me. We worked at a school with several hundred students and many classrooms, it was fairly big. He needed something I didn’t have the authority to grant him, so I encouraged him to go talk to the Executive Director about it.

He replied, “I’m pretty sure she doesn’t even know my name.”

I instantly knew that it was probably true. Staff turnover was high and lead teachers did most of their own hiring and firing, without much involvement from administration. The school was in a tumultuous period and our newest assistant teachers felt invisible.

With that, I made a promise to myself that when I was a school leader I would never let my assistant teachers feel invisible. I think that most of them would say I did a good job at knowing and acknowledging them, even if they disagreed with me or felt intimidated by me.

Over the years I have worked with many brilliant leaders who did an excellent job of genuinely supporting assistant teachers. I’ve learned a lot from these leaders and from my own experience.

Here are my favorite ideas for supporting assistant teachers:

Put Them on Hiring Committees

Assistant teachers have a significant stake in who is hired at the school. As the people who do some of the most difficult physical and emotional labor in the school, they need to have a strong team of colleagues. People they can depend on and with whom they enjoy working.

Assistant teachers are also the people who know the most about how your school really operates. They genuinely understand what the needs are in every classroom or afterschool program role. Empower them to take ownership of their stake in your community and pay them to participate in the process of interviewing and hiring people.

Need more great resources on hiring and supporting an amazing team of people? Check out my free e-course, Hire & Keep Great Teachers!

Observe Them

You really should be observing the classrooms on a regular basis anyway. So while you are there, train your focus directly on one assistant teacher and take notes. Look for their strengths. Write down questions you have. Seek potential opportunities for growth.

After your observation write the person a handwritten note that thanks them for the pleasure of observing. Tell them something specific and positive you saw. Note their strengths. Let them know you are grateful they are at your school.

Discuss your observation with the lead teacher. Explore the assistant teacher’s strengths and areas for growth. Make a plan for something the lead teacher can do to support the assistant teacher’s growth in the classroom.

Set Goals with Them

First, are you doing annual reviews with your assistant teachers? Every person who works in your school needs an annual review. I think that lead teachers and administration should collaborate on assistant teacher reviews. They deserve comprehensive feedback from both.

At their review, discuss what you have observed, how you have seen them grow, and what you’d like to see them do next. Invite them to share their goals and how they want you to support them. Make a collective plan for their individual professional development and other support that will help them thrive.

Let Them Be Creative

I don’t know about you, but the assistant teachers I have worked with over the years have been some of the most interesting and inspiring people I’ve ever known. My goodness am I grateful for what they have taught me!

One of the reasons I learned so much from the assistant teachers I worked with is because I was always game for letting them try out their ideas. Experimentation is key to innovation. People who are respected for their ideas and have space to try new things are engaged employees.

Listen to them and try out their ideas. They might be really effective!

Our assistant teachers work so hard. And let’s be real, they aren’t paid well because their work is undervalued by our society. As leaders, we must do everything we can to lift them up and invest in them. Our schools literally cannot function without them.

What do you do to support your assistant teachers?

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