Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Teamwork: Key to Success for Teachers and Paraeducators


Kent Gerlach is Professor in the School of Education at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.

The changing landscape of public education has had a significant impact on the roles of the personnel who serve in our schools. Teacher shortages, increasing numbers of English language learners, and the rising enrollment of students with disabilities and other special needs are just some of the factors that make the need for a dynamic school team more necessary than ever (Gerlach, 2002). To be successful, teachers and paraeducators must view themselves as teams and partners in the educational process.A common thread across definitions of teams is that teamwork can be defined as a process among partners who share mutual goals and work together to achieve the goals. Teamwork allows people to discuss their work together and, as a result, to grow professionally.Input from all team members needs to be solicited. Questions need to be asked and answered. Ideas need to be shared. Teamwork doesn’t happen by accident. It requires effort and commitment, and a willingness to accept the challenges of working together.Team effectiveness can be achieved by sharing expectations with one another, by allowing the paraeducator to participate in the planning process, by appreciating each other’s unique personality traits, by respecting diversity, and by demonstrating a positive attitude toward teamwork. Once a team works well together, the job is less stressful, more enjoyable, more rewarding for all team members, and results in greater benefit to students.

Characteristics of New Teams

According to a review of research on team effectiveness done by Abelson and Woodman (1983), a team that has just formed usually has some or all of the following characteristics:

  • There is considerable confusion as to roles that team members must assume.
  • There is confusion as to the social and professional relationships among members of the team.
  • Individuals have some assets or competencies relative to the team’s purpose. However, some people may be unaware of how their skills or knowledge relate to team goals. Perhaps more importantly, some individuals may be unaware of (or may not value) the strengths and competencies of others, or may not appreciate their relationship to team goals.
  • While there may be some understanding of short-range goals (e.g., why the team was brought together), understanding of long-range goals is likely to be more elusive.
  • In the absence of established norms, rules or policies, there is considerable confusion about how the team will operate, how decisions will be made, and so on.
  • Team members (and particularly leaders) do not pay much early attention to social and professional relationships, being more likely to focus initially on the task.

These characteristics are important for us to consider when focusing on the teacher-paraeducator team.

Goals and Effectiveness

If a team is to be effective, all members must have a clear understanding of and agreement on the team goals. The elements of a goal include (a) what is to be achieved; (b) a measure of accomplishment – how we will know when the outcome has been reached; and, (c) the time factor – when we want to have the goal completed. The goals of the team must be developed with input from all team members, and roles and responsibilities of both teacher and paraeducator in achieving the goals must be clearly defined. Several factors need to be considered in determining these roles and responsibilities. They include experience, training, comfort level, time constraints, and knowledge levels of individual team members. Together, the teacher and other professional practitioners and the paraeducator determine what needs to be done, by whom, and by when, clearly defining roles, responsibilities, and expectations.Leadership is a critical factor for team success in achieving goals. The leader is always the teacher or another school professional who has been designated as the paraeducator’s supervisor. The supervisor’s role is similar to that of a coach. It involves assessing the paraeducator’s skills and helping the paraeducator use them to the fullest. Paraeducators contribute more effectively when they are “coached” and encouraged to make optimal use of their strengths and resources. A supervisor provides direction and ideas, helps identify alternatives, raises questions, and supplies feedback. One way to understand that role is through the mentoring model.

The Supervisor as Mentor

The teacher who mentors paraeducators shares invaluable knowledge and skills. Mentoring is a process whereby teachers and paraeducators work together to discover and develop paraeducators’ abilities, and to provide paraeducators with knowledge and skills as opportunities and needs arise. The teacher as a supervisor, mentor, and team leader should do the following:

  • Set expectations of paraeducator performance.
  • Offer challenging plans and ideas.
  • Help build self-confidence of the paraeducator.
  • Encourage ethical and professional behavior.
  • Offer support.
  • Actively listen.
  • Lead and teach by example.
  • Provide growth experiences.
  • Ask questions and give explanations.
  • Coach the paraeducator.
  • Encourage the paraeducator.
  • Inspire the paraeducator.
  • Share critical knowledge.
  • Assist, observe, and demonstrate effective instructional practice.
  • Direct and delegate effectively.
  • Give clear, concise directions.

A mentor models and demonstrates effective practice; uses good communication strategies, showing both respect and recognition; and lays the foundation for building trust in teams.

Trust and Team Success

Trust between team members is necessary to a productive working environment, and trust is built in teams by promoting open communication, providing fair leadership, and supervising with sensitivity (Pickett & Gerlach, in press).It is essential for all team members to practice open, honest communication in order to increase awareness and build cooperation. Effective communication expresses a team member’s beliefs, ideas, needs or feelings. Communication must facilitate the free flow or exchange of ideas, information, and instruction that contribute to common understanding. When ideas are shared, there is opportunity for evaluation and input that can build even better ideas. From each new experience, more ideas can be developed and tried. All team members also need to develop listening skills so that they can obtain sufficient and accurate information necessary for an effective working relationship. Successful communication results in a mutual understanding of what was sent and what was heard. This component of trust promotes loyalty and commitment to achieve the goals of the team.Closely related to this is fair leadership. A fair leader gives open, honest feedback and sets the tone for constructive dialog among team members.Complementing fairness is sensitivity. A leader who supervises with sensitivity provides team members with leadership support that acknowledges the value of each paraeducator’s contribution to team success, as well as the diverse needs of each team member.


Tying together all these elements, the following questions can be used to assess the effectiveness of teacher and paraeducator teams:

  • Do all team members understand team goals?
  • Are all team members committed to these goals?
  • Are team members concerned about and interested in each other?
  • Do team members have the emotional maturity to acknowledge and confront conflict openly?
  • Do team members listen to others with openness and understanding?
  • Do all team members value one another’s contributions?
  • Do team members feel comfortable contributing ideas and solutions?
  • Do team members recognize and reward team performance?
  • Do team members encourage and appreciate comments about team efforts?
  • Are team meetings held at a specific time?
  • Is leadership effective?
  • Is constructive feedback given freely to improve decision-making?
  • Is information shared willingly?
  • Are team members willing to communicate their concerns?

The interdependent working relationship of today’s paraeducators, teachers, and principals is often like a jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, they don’t have a picture on the front of a box to know what the puzzle is supposed to look like when it’s finished. Sometimes they don’t even have all the pieces. That’s why, in today’s education climate, the most successful schools operate as a team. When paraeducators, teachers, and principals team up to connect the pieces of the puzzle, students are the ultimate beneficiaries.


  • Abelson, M. A., & Woodman, R. W. (1983). Review of research on team effectiveness: Implications for teams in schools. School Psychology Review, 12, 125–136.

  • Gerlach, K. (2002). Let’s Team Up. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association.

  • Pickett, A., & Gerlach, K. (2003). Supervising Paraeducators in Educational Settings. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.