Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities

The Role of Teachers and Administrators in Supervising Paraeducators


Teri Wallace is Project Director with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and Co-Director of the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals.

“Supervising” is a challenging word to use when referring to teachers and paraeducators and yet, that is exactly what teachers must do – supervise. Policy states it and practice expects it, but still many paraeducators find themselves fairly “unsupervised” and feel a lack of confidence and a lack of job satisfaction because of the uncertainty that exists. One might suggest that the principal or administrator is the supervisor since he or she can hire, terminate, and evaluate. However, the teacher is the person who “directs the day-to-day work” of the paraeducator and, as such provides what some refer to as “instructional supervision.” Whatever the term, it is clear that teachers and administrators have responsibilities when it comes to the supervision of paraeducators in educational settings.Several studies and opinion pieces have addressed the importance of supervision from as early as 1966, and all agree that given appropriate supervision, paraeducators can perform instructional activities. Currently, legislation emphasizes it and teachers must learn strategies for directing the work of paraeducators. In addition, administrators must promote effective instructional supervisory relationships and create infrastructures that reward teacher-paraeducator teams. We conducted a study in Minnesota to identify and validate competencies needed by teachers who direct the work of paraeducators. This article describes the seven areas within which 30 competencies exist – Communicating with Paraeducators, Managing the Work of Paraeducators, Modeling for Paraeducators, Planning and Scheduling for Paraeducators, Providing Instructional Support for Paraeducators, Public Relations, Training for Paraeducators – and describes the unique role of administrators.

Communicating with Paraeducators

Most people would like a clear understanding of what is expected of them in the workplace, and paraeducators in our nation’s schools are no exception. A busy school professional – especially one with little or no training in supervising paraeducators – could easily be tempted to place a paraeducator with a student, or group of students, with little direction or explanation of expectations or desired outcomes.To provide the best education or care for students, however, supervisors need to communicate clearly and regularly with the paraeducators. Without clear and regular communication, frustration and disappointment for both the teacher and the paraeducator are likely to result. The problem in a lot of schools is that many school professionals have not learned or been taught the communication skills required to direct the work of another adult. Teachers must know the principles of effective communication, and how to use these communication skills to provide paraeducators with the daily direction they need to do their jobs.In addition to general communication skills, training teachers in the principles of teamwork and team building would be of great benefit to both the teacher and the paraeducator. With training in communication and team building skills, the teacher can establish a team where the teacher and the paraeducator work together for the benefit of the students they serve.A team that meets regularly provides the paraeducator with the opportunity to express concerns, offer opinions, and ask for clarification of roles, duties, and goals. Teams with clearly defined roles and regularly scheduled meetings can experience many advantages, not the least of which include increased job satisfaction, reduced tension, improved job performance, and self-confidence.

Managing the Work of Paraeducators

Few teachers can be placed in a classroom without having learned the classroom management techniques required to develop lessons, deliver instruction, and assess students. Many teachers, however, find themselves ill-equipped to manage the work of another adult – the paraeducator – because they have received little or no formal training in supervisory methods, either as part of their teacher education or from their school or district. Managing or supervising paraeducators involves more than informing them about what needs to be done or how to do it. It involves several key functions, shared between the teacher and the administrator:

  • Orientation.Supervisors need to arrange for paraeducators to be welcomed and oriented to the school upon arrival.
  • Providing a Job Description and Clarifying Roles.It is critical that supervisors provide paraeducators with job descriptions and review them with the paraeducators so that they understand their roles and responsibilities. As part of this discussion, supervisors need to clarify that certain activities are to remain the responsibility of the teacher or licensed professional. These include instructional planning, adapting curriculum, designing accommodations, and communicating with families.
  • Evaluating Performance.Supervisors will be responsible for evaluating paraeducator performance. As part of this, supervisors need to inform paraeducators when they can expect a formal performance review, who will perform it, and what the likely outcomes of the review will be.
  • Informing Paraeducators of Training Opportunities.Good supervisors inform paraeducators of training opportunities and encourage them to pursue further training.
  • Providing Ongoing Supervision and Direction.Supervisors should not expect paraeducators to work independently. It is up to the supervisor to assign activities and responsibilities and to coordinate regular interaction and communication with the paraeducator.

If teachers are not informed of what is expected of them as supervisors, many of these responsibilities could easily be overlooked or fall through the cracks. To ensure that students with disabilities receive the best care and education possible, proper supervision and management of paraeducators is required.

Modeling for Paraeducators

Teachers and others who direct the work of paraeducators serve as models for the paraeducators who work with them. The Minnesota Paraeducator Consortium has identified for educators three competencies for modeling behavior for paraeducators. A teacher demonstrating the first competency models for the paraeducator a caring and respectful manner when interacting with students. The teacher or therapist might not realize that the paraeducator is observing him or her and is, consciously or unconsciously, noting the teacher’s actions and attitude as the correct and proper way to interact with students.The second competency involves modeling behavior that is trustworthy, cooperative, and positive. Not only will the paraeducators observe, and learn from, a teacher’s interaction with students, but also the way he or she works with other school specialists and school administrators.The third competency involves modeling respect, patience, and persistence in carrying out educational objectives. Teachers are certain to encounter challenges, disruptions, and delays in their day-to-day activities. How they respond to these issues will be observed by others in the classroom. The instructional strategies used by the teachers should be modeled to paraeducators. This is a useful way to provide on-the-job training when appropriately implemented.

Planning and Scheduling for Paraeducators

To effectively work with paraeducators to meet the set educational objectives for students with special needs, school professionals need to know how to plan and schedule the work of the paraeducators who work with them. Delegation is the primary skill involved in planning and scheduling for paraeducators. This can present a problem for many teacher-paraeducator teams since, of all the tasks and responsibilities involved in supervising a paraeducator, directing and delegating are two of the tasks teachers are likely to resist most. Teachers resist delegating for a variety of reasons. Some are uncomfortable being “the boss” and others fear losing control over the tasks for which they are ultimately responsible. Paraeducators working for supervisors who are poorly trained or unskilled in delegating run the risk of feeling like they must prepare their own plans and schedules or they may be assigned tasks that are really the responsibility of the professional. Tasks such as adapting lessons, assessing students, and consulting with other professionals should not fall to the paraeducator simply because the professional failed to plan and delegate appropriately.Because it is neither effective for school professionals to plan for a para-educator “on-the-fly,” nor appropriate for paraeducators to plan for themselves, school professionals need to acquire the necessary skills to best direct the work of paraeducators. A supervisor who knows how to delegate, plan, and schedule will be best prepared to incorporate the work of a paraeducator into the educational goals of students.

Providing Instructional Support for Paraeducators

In recent years, legislation, tight school budgets, and teacher shortages have caused schools to rely increasingly on the work of paraeducators to assist students with special needs. Paraeducators have seen their responsibilities increasing and changing from general support activities – such as general clerical tasks and monitoring students – to delivering instruction to individual students or groups of students. Although busy school professionals may be tempted to hastily inform paraeducators of daily lesson plans, and may even be tempted to leave paraeducators to design their own work plans, paraeducators, like any other staff member, will be more productive and have increased job satisfaction if they are fully supported in their instructional and therapeutic work.While teachers and other school professionals may understand that it is their responsibility to plan and schedule for paraeducators, it might not occur to them to make time to provide regular, constructive feedback either in the classroom or in a meeting setting. This is particularly important for those paraeducators who work in independent settings (e.g. job coach). Similarly, teachers might believe it is quicker to do all the instructional planning without seeking the input or assistance of the paraeducator, not realizing that they are overlooking an opportunity to acquire important information that could benefit the student’s education, and to make the paraeducator feel more valued.Likewise, when those directing the work of paraeducators take the time and make the effort to notify other school personnel of the paraeducator role in meeting set educational objectives, they open the door to input and advice from other school specialists who can provide additional support to the paraeducators.Finally, there is, perhaps, no better way to show respect for the work a paraeducator does than to manage and organize the resources paraeducators need to do their jobs. Planning and scheduling for paraeducators are not enough if the materials or space paraeducators require are inadequate, difficult to find or nonexistent.

Public Relations

Supervisors, teachers and other professionals directing the work of paraeducators are responsible for certain public relations tasks on behalf of the paraeducators that work with them. Teachers and administrators may not understand the importance of this task.One public relations task supervisors will most likely find themselves engaged in on paraeducators’ behalf involves representing paraeducators in situations when they are unable (or not invited) to speak for themselves. For example, paraeducators will not be present for many of the conversations teachers have with parents. It is up to the teacher to explain to the parents who the paraeducator is, and what his or her role is in the education or care of their child. Similarly, it is also up to the supervisor to keep the administration informed of the paraeducator’s progress, performance, and – in some cases – any serious concerns the paraeducator has about his or her job.Another public relations task teachers might engage in as supervisors would include introducing and identifying the paraeducator to school administrators, other school professionals, and the parents of the students assigned to their care. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to make sure it is clear to all involved in the education of the children with whom the paraeducator works who the paraeducator is, what his or her role is, and that he or she is a valued member of the supervisor’s team.Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is up to the person who directs the work of the paraeducator to advocate for additional training, necessary role clarification, and involvement in decision-making for the paraeducator.For many teachers it may take some time to adjust to the idea that their assistance in this area is important to the development of quality support and training of the paraeducators with whom they work.

Training Paraeducators

For most people to do their jobs well, they need to be adequately and appropriately trained. As such, it stands to reason that if school professionals expect paraeducators to carry out the tasks they give them, they must first train paraeducators appropriately. The initial step in training paraeducators – and one that is too often overlooked – is providing paraeducators with an orientation at the start of their employment. An orientation will be the most effective if it is structured and includes, among other things, general and specific information about the paraeducator’s job responsibilities (including a written job description), district and school policies, a tour of the school facilities, and introductions to staff and team members.After the orientation, the paraeducators’ supervisors are responsible for providing direct support and on-the-job training. Without this support, the potential for confusion and frustration increases as paraeducators are left to figure things out for themselves. It is with this task that staff development for teachers and other school staff would be useful in helping them understand their role in training and supporting para-educators.Paraeducators, like the professionals around them, need to keep their skills current and be informed of any changes in methods, policies, or legislation affecting students with disabilities. Without training in staff development techniques, it might not occur to teachers to initiate and create (with the paraeducator) a growth and development plan. Through training teachers in staff development techniques, teachers would learn that an orientation and on-the-job training are the minimum training requirements paraeducators need in order to do their jobs. But to truly provide the best education and care for students with disabilities, and to increase paraeducators’ job satisfaction and retention levels, supervisors need to support and advocate for inservice training for the paraeducators that work with them.If teachers understand the importance of staff development and are trained in staff development techniques, they are more likely to be aware of available training opportunities and understand that it is their responsibility to inform paraeducators of these opportunities. Teachers would know, for example, to look for inservice training in many different forms including training sessions provided by districts, community colleges, universities, and other agencies, as well as provide access to independent learning opportunities through articles, journals, videos, self-directed training guides, and the Web.Teachers and others directing the work of paraeducators cannot assume that an orientation and on-the-job training are enough for the professional development of the paraeducators in their schools. As the paraeducators’ supervisors, teachers need to be aware of paraeducator interests, strengths, and weaknesses and support paraeducators in seeking to improve their skills.


Since the quality of work performed by any staff member is directly affected by the quality of the preparation put into that work, teachers and administrators must understand what is necessary to prepare and support paraeducators. In turn, their efforts will ultimately contribute to better instruction, a stronger team atmosphere, and increased confidence and job satisfaction among paraeducators. We hope that teachers and administrators will intentionally design a system that recognizes the contributions of prepared, supervised paraeducators. In the words of Daniels and McBride (2001), “In the final analysis, schools cannot adequately function without paraeducators, and paraeducators cannot adequately function in schools that lack an infrastructure that supports and respects them as viable and contributing members of instructional teams.”


  • Daniels, V. I., & McBride, A. (2001). Paraeducators as critical team members: Redefining roles and responsibilities. NASSP Bulletin, 85, 623.