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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

Classroom Aides – how can they be most useful?

Elena Darling-Hammond

In this entry I will discuss strategies for classroom aides. I first discuss my own experiences as and aide in an elementary special education classroom and what I learned during the process. I will then discuss ways in which I think teachers and aides can make the class room experience beneficial for all.

Initially, when I began my praxis placement at a local elementary school assisting two young men with their reading I felt ill prepared. I did not know many of the phonics rules one would apply while reading. Although I had taken a course on teaching reading and had reviewed the information before beginning my work with the students; I did not have much knowledge of specific phonics techniques. Thus when the students stumbled over words I did my best to break the word into fragments they could decode, but I was not sure that I always broke up the word correctly. After working with them once I noticed my deficiency, to address it I got a book which discussed phonics and did my best to work on learning the phonics rules. When I discussed this concern with the teacher whose class I was assisting she recommended that I continue to work on my phonics skills more and she also promised to help me find information. She then explained to me that the young men with whom I was working knew all of the rules; however, they did not always apply them. Thus, although it helped for me to know the rules as well, the most helpful thing I could do was to remind the students to use the rules they knew.

During my early experience I also found that I did not remember much of what I learned in Geography and Science. I realized this when I was unable to answer questions that arose while reading the book. While reading a word builder (a book comprised of specific phonics skills) with a story that took place in Iceland, I first got confused about the difference between an iceberg and a glacier. I was also unable to show the students where Green Land and Ice Land appeared on the world map. In both of these instances the teacher was able to catch my mistake and clarify the information; however, I alone would not have been able to do this. Given that the teacher is working with other students on a separate lesson I did not want to disrupt her too much. As a result, after this incident I made sure to review the material before I read it with the students so that I could prepare myself for any questions that they might ask. For example, before reading a book about four young people in a Karate club, I looked up the history of Karate as well ensured that I knew the location of various eastern countries mentioned throughout the text.

Another issue I initially faced was that the word builders I read with the students were usually about subjects that were boring and did not relate to the students’ lives. This was problematic because the students were only reading because they had to. They were not interested in the content and thus did not read enthusiastically. I asked the classroom teacher if I could look for texts that were more interesting for the students and she agreed that this would be fine as long as they were challenging. I reviewed some chapter books that were fairly challenging, but that were also interesting and contained characters with whom I hoped the students could relate. I feel that it is important for a reader to not only understand the text, but to also be drawn into reading it. I also feel that interest is a primary factor in learning not just to read but to enjoy reading. As I had hoped, when I introduced the students to one of the texts I had selected the students were more interested and they began to read with more enthusiasm. They often tried to figure out words themselves because they wanted to know what was going to happen. The students even requested homework so that they could continue to read the book outside of class.

After my experiences I began to question how one can be a successful classroom/instructional assistant. Initially I felt that although I may have been assisting the teacher while working with the students, I was not being as helpful as I wanted to be to the students. However, I worked on the areas where I felt I had weaknesses and regularly talked to the teacher I was working with. This allowed me to become a better classroom aide.

I would recommend that any teachers working with instructional aides make sure to ask what the aide is proficient in. For example, I am somewhat helpful with reading, but when it comes to geography I am at a complete loss, thus when I was asked to show the students where Greenland and Iceland was located I was unprepared. I would also recommend that teachers do not pair inexperienced aides with students with serious needs. I do not have to deal with this in my situation, but I can imagine that it would be frustrating for both the aide and the students. I also advise teachers to watch how the aide is doing, although I know this is difficult given that there are other students the teacher needs to be paying attention to. An example of a teacher supporting an aide is when my classroom teacher assisted me in both finding Iceland and Greenland and gave me a resource book that described the difference between a glacier and an iceberg so I was able to properly explain it to students.

I would advise instructional aides to first become as comfortable as they can with the subject they will be working on prior to entering the classroom. An example of this would be reviewing phonics. I would recommend that aides look at the materials they will be using with students and ensure that they know as much as they can about the given material. An example of this would be if I had read the story that dealt with Iceland in advance I could have looked it up on map prior to working with students. I also must stress that aides should ask their teachers for assistance if they feel they cannot handle something. An example of this is my discussion with my classroom teacher about my concerns regarding my abilities, she gave me encouragement and also promised to assist me in finding information that will help me hone my skills. Also, classroom aides should try to make the material as engaging and interesting for the students as possible.

In conclusion, I would say that the best way to be a helpful classroom/instructional aide would be to get training before entering the classroom. If one has training, I am sure that one will not face as many obstacles as I have. However, I am aware that this is not always possible. In these instances I suggest that one tries to find as much information as one can in advance. In either situation, with or without training, I advise one to continue working on one’s skills and striving to learn as much as one can from one’s successes and failures as an aide. Do not be afraid to try something new based on what you have observed of students needs. Also, I cannot stress enough that the teacher you are working with is a resource. Although it may be difficult at times, continue to look for new strategies to assist yourself and your students.

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