How To Effectively Collaborate With Teachers

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If you’re a helping professional working with kids, such as a child psychologist, clinical counselor, behavior analyst, occupational therapist, or speech and language pathologist, you may find yourself working with your client’s teacher. Learning to effectively collaborate with teachers is a critical skill to have.

Teacher collaboration can be an important part of your job if you’re a helping professional working with kids.

Sometimes this relationship may be a brief interaction, and others it might be frequent contact, depending on the situation.

Ideally, you’re able to build a relationship with a teacher you’re working with in which you can share ideas, collaborate on interventions, and truly feel like team members. After all, the goal of effective collaboration with teachers and outside professionals is better student outcomes.

As a teacher and behavior analyst, I’ve been on both sides of this relationship. As school starts back this fall, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences over the years and thinking about lessons learned. I wanted to share it with other helping professionals who find themselves going into schools to support clients this year. 

Here are some things I think all professionals collaborating with school teams can consider going into this school year, boiled down from my personal experience. 

The purpose is to share some ideas that can help build a foundation for deeply effective collaborative work.

  1. Teachers have REALLY hard jobs
  2. Communication is key
  3. Teachers are professionals
  4. Schools and school boards have policies and procedures. There’s no way around this.
  5. A little kindness can go a long way
  6. A classroom is like a teacher’s home
  7. Going out of your way to help can make all the difference. 

Teachers have REALLY hard jobs

It is no easy task to be the one responsible for planning, implementing, teaching, evaluating, and reporting on the learning, development and overall student achievement of anywhere from 20-40 children with very little paid planning time.

Furthermore, there are few breaks. During instructional time, you’re on. Time between lessons is usually spent going to the bathroom, eating a snack since you coached a team or hosted a club at lunch, and tidying in the classroom before the kids return and you move on with your lesson.

Teachers just never have enough time in the day to get done what they need to get done. Not to mention, they often put in a lot of unpaid time for professional development, trying to stay on top of best practices.

Teachers put an incredible amount of unpaid time into their jobs to see their students succeed. I highlight this because I remember the times that a helping professional would show up in my room and then want to chat with me during my preparation time which I had planned to use to get my next class ready. 

If you’re working in schools as an OT, SLP, PT, BCBA, psychologist or counselor, consider this harried context when scheduling time to work with teachers. 

Always let them know you are coming and, if possible, coordinate a time convenient for them. You may even consider requesting from school leaders that coverage be provided for the teacher should you need to meet outside of the classroom during instructional time.

You will learn that school culture and school leadership have a lot to do with whether teachers are released for meetings with outside professionals. Sometimes teacher teams may provide coverage for each other

Lastly, even just a simple recognition of the work they’re doing, the effort they’re putting in, and thanking them for having you into their classroom can really help build rapport. Building this rapport through empathy of the position they are in can build a solid foundation to effectively collaborate with teachers.

Communication is Key

As a teacher, I always appreciated when outside professionals were open with communication, being ready and willing to provide updates, reach out with questions, and check in with the school team. It really felt like we were creating strong partnerships.

Try starting out by giving them the benefit of the doubt that they want to work with you and are capable and willing partners. Sometimes this will not be the case and the administrator has asked you as an outside professional to come in, resulting in a less-than-willing colleague. However, beginning with the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise is a great place to start. 

It only serves your client better to be open and transparent with the school team, sharing things that have worked for you, offering help and communicating and changes on your end. 

However, the tone of your communication is also really important. Recognizing the challenges and constraints of the school environment and getting their input on a client sets a respectful tone.

One key area for this is with observations. If you’re asked to go observe a student, discuss ahead of time with the classroom teacher about how they should introduce you and what they would prefer from you during the observation. For example, do they want to you interact with students or not?

Some will want you to sit quietly in one spot and observe. Others may prefer you to mingle in the classroom and interact with students as you observe your client. 

Discussing these details before the observation helps avoid awkward or frustrating situations during the observation. This may differ based on grade-level or whether this is a high school or elementary classroom. 

The bottom line is, simply asking the teacher about their preferences is a great starting point. Taking the time to communicate can be a great way to set a positive and respectful tone and effectively collaborate with teachers.

Teachers are professionals

Regardless of whether teachers have completed a degree beyond their teacher training and undergraduate degree, teachers are professionals and should be treated as such. 

They’re experts in their curriculum, assessment and, most importantly, their students. Teachers work incredibly hard to do well for their students and (in my opinion) are the backbone of our society, so should be treated with a commensurate level of respect. 

Teachers participate in professional learning communities (PLCs) that involve professional development around specific topics.

This can mean delving into best teaching practices as found in educational research, problem-solving current issues in education, using educational research to plan for student success or school improvement, giving feedback to each other on lesson plans, or other learning experiences based on relevant educational topics. 

PLCs are ways for teachers to stay current in best practices and improve their pedagogy and instructional practices through teamwork in a small group setting.

Teachers want to see their students do well, and are always looking for ways to improve students learning and overall well-being at school. The job of a teacher is never done. 

There is constant reflection and response to student learning that drives teachers to seek out ways to be an increasingly effective teacher. Teachers are lifelong learners and try to instill the same in their students.

To effectively collaborate with teachers, come in with a respectful tone that shows admiration for the work they do, listen to their insights, and actually integrate this into your work. This builds a successful collaborative relationship.

Schools and Boards have policies that can’t be avoided

Part of being respectful when entering a school as an invited professional is adhering to school (and classroom) rules. Knowing what policies are relevant to you ahead of time is best. An initial call to the Office Administrator or Principal can help set common expectations at the outset. 

My recommendation is to not try to haggle for exceptions, instead be flexible and work around their policies and procedures. Being accommodating and toeing the line can help you effectively collaborate with teachers becuase it shows respect and doesn’t ruffle any feathers before you even set foot in the school.

Examples of policies to be aware of are:

  • Forms to be signed ahead of time
  • Certain school staff being notified of your visit
  • Not wearing scented products
  • Adhering to set times for visiting the school
  • Signing in upon arrival
  • Wearing a ‘Visitor’ tag and signing out when you leave. 
  • Covid pandemic-related protocols.

Asking about school policies at the outset can help show respect without having to be asked.

A little kindness can go a long way

This relates to point #1 about a teacher’s job being hard. After spending some time in the classroom, you’ll get a good idea of how you can help out and what the teacher might appreciate. 

To effectively collaborate with the teachers you are working with, I guarantee extending some simple acts of kindess can really help.

Going out of your way to help a teacher by making materials for a strategy you’ve suggested, bringing a treat to a meeting, volunteering some time in the classroom, being really flexible to suit the teacher’s schedule, or helping to tidy the classroom at the end of the day are all ways that you can show kindness to a teacher you are working with.

A classroom is much like a teacher’s home

Most teachers spend a lot of time and effort intentionally designing their classroom environment. Respecting this by asking about classroom rules or procedures ahead of time can help start your relationship with the classroom teacher off on the right foot.

You are entering a teacher’s personal space that they have carefully curated. Take their cues, and show respect by treating it as if you are going into someone’s living room. 

You never want it to seem like you’re coming into their space and critiqueing their home. This is especialy true as, when outside professionals are observing, it’s not your role to critique their teaching but rather just observe your client in the context of the classroom.

Be cognizant of not leaving any garbage in the classroom like empty coffee cups, tucking in your chair when you leave, or helping with other classroom chores.

Some special education classrooms have no-hot-drink policies due to risk of spilling. Consider not bringing any food or drink into the classroom just to be safe. The last thing you want is to be that person who spills something on student work! 

Think about the little things like stacking your chair after an observation. All of this adds up.

Don’t take yourself too seriously

Schools are full of kids. Kids like fun. Teachers (generally speaking!) also are lighthearted and accustomed to having fun with their students. Being too serious can make it harder to build rapport.

That being said, read the room. You’ll get a good sense of classroom culture and teacher personality by spending some time in a classroom. If invited, participate in what the class is doing and have fun participating and interacting with students. 

After spending some time in the school, you’ll also get an idea of its culture. Participating in activities, buying some cookies at a bake sale, or eating your lunch in the staff room (if welcome to do so) are all ways to get to know staff in a laid back manner.

The Bottom Line on How to Effectively Collaborate with Teachers

It’s common for outside professionals like psychologists, BCBAs, OT, PTs, SLPs or counselors to be invited into a classroom to collaborate with a school team. 

There are some basic things to keep in mind about school culture and collaborative practices before heading in to help.

It’s a privilege to be invited into a teacher’s domain, their classroom. Keeping these few tips in mind can go a really long way to building rapport. If you start out on the right foot, you’re likely to get where you are going faster: better success for the client/learner you are both there to serve.

What has your experience been either as a teacher with outside professionals coming into the school or as a helping professional going into classrooms? Drop any wisdom, insights or comments you have below. 

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