How We Can Support Each Other

THE WORD SUPPORT seems to carry more and more weight in education these days. In fact, recently I was invited to read through hundreds of comments in a FuelEd survey regarding teacher wellness. After an extensive analysis, we wrote a policy brief to California state leaders regarding our findings. As a classroom teacher of 20 years, it didn’t surprise me that the responding teachers almost half called out the word “support” in their responses. One thing about the word seemed clear: Just about all school staff feel as though they need a lot more of it.

And that’s where you come in – because it doesn’t seem to matter whether you are a classroom teacher, a custodian, a principal, a counselor, a literacy resource teacher, a special education coordinator – whoever you are, you need support too. With that in mind, I asked some of the finest teachers I know, and some of the most supportive staff I’ve had the privilege to work with, what they do to help support one another. What they said is summarized and synthesized into five simple phrases.

“See the whole picture — these kids are all on our caseload”

A colleague, a special education coordinator, told me that they sometimes feel placed in positions that are at odds with others, even though that is not the case. “It helps me to remember that all these kids, whether they have IEPs or not, are on our caseload. If I teach a phonics lesson, and there are a few other students that can use the help, we arrange to have them join us.” Her school site has begun to invite special education staff to professional learning communities with classroom teachers whenever possible. “Now,” she said, “all my special ed students are on the classroom teachers’ caseload, and all their kids are on mine. If there’s a kid with a need, and it’s the same as another kid, we put them together. Makes no difference whose roster they are on or which class they sit in.”

“You too can prevent fires,” or “Pro-activity is the best activity you can help me with”

Support can also take the form of prevention. Our principal recently began to address the needs of students beyond the typical “cusp” students we’ve been asked to target for years. Throughout the year we complete and maintain a document for students who need a little extra support, and it’s not always academic in nature. “Knowing that a kid needs extra attention goes beyond the classroom,” she said to me. “Sometimes a student has experienced trauma that extends beyond the school’s typical safety net. But when they know that the whole village has his or her back, they can really make meaningful progress.” As the village is aware of who needs additional support, children are involved in various activities to give them an extra boost. Sometimes we choose them for announcements or help steer them towards leadership positions in our school Playground Patrol or after-school leadership clubs. These activities are pro-active and help put out fires before they happen, but also lead to motivation in class.

“Be mindful of language and how we conduct ourselves”

One of the best pieces of advice was from a San Diego Unified School District Teacher of the Year. Janice Anderson has taught for over two decades at her Title 1 school and recently became a literacy resource teacher. When I asked her about support, she gave me her usual smile and customary sound logic. “It’s often how we act with one another,” explaining that both sides of the fence tend to feel like we might be busier than the other side and being mindful of our language and how we conduct ourselves sets a tone to either collaborate effectively or build resentment that pencils productive work. “I avoid I statements that do not promote being helpful,” she said. “Unless I am asking what it is that I can do for you. It doesn’t matter if I’m a teacher or support staff.”

“Find me at the right place and the right time”

It’s hard to feel either supportive or to give support if you feel rushed. “You’ve got to be mindful to respect each other’s time,” said a colleague who has worked as both a teacher and a support provider. “When you have children in front of you, there is no down time. So as someone without a roster, I’m always mindful of making sure to respect teachers when they are eating, when they have a moment to themselves.” She keeps a schedule of when teachers might be most available to talk and says that talking with them when they are most present helps collaboration. “It’s also important to use any time we’re given for collaboration so that I respect their time in that way too. I want to make sure we get as much done as we can when we are gifted the time to collaborate.”

“Communicate progress to me, of any kind”

A common refrain in the FuelEd survey was the daily workload. A special education resource teacher told me, “It can take me hours to complete an IEP, and there’s a lot of assessment that goes into it as well. But if the teacher and I are on the same page, I can give them information that they can use, and they can give me information I can use. It saves us both time and energy.” A classroom teacher who has worked alongside special education programs for years agreed. “I’ve got grades to write. I’ve got parents to conference with and tests to grade for meetings. Anytime someone helps me figure out where a kid is at, it’s good news. Also, whenever I attend an IEP meeting, my major concern is that I’m prepared and can help make the right decisions and give the right input about the child. When the SPED coordinator and I have been in communication throughout the year about the child’s progress, we can talk mostly about how best to help that kid with all the members of an IEP meeting present.”

Whether you feel your school is supporting you and your colleagues effectively or you feel there needs to be a tune-up, I hope these five phrases can help.

Thomas Courtney, San Diego Education Association, is a fifth grade teacher at Chollas-Mead Elementary in southeast San Diego. Hey was San Diego Unified’s Elementary District Teacher of the Year 2021.

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