Effective In-Class Support

It’s the end of September.  I’ve done my beginning of year assessments and teachers are gathered for our Wednesday staff meeting.  Once business is taken care of I ask who wants me to work in their class this year with ELLs or at-risk students.  All hands go up. Every teacher wants in-class support. This scenario is not a testament to my teaching–it’s a commentary on in-class support when it’s done effectively.  I was a “push-in” teacher for years when I worked in NYC.  I loved it.  The teachers loved it.  We did it because we believed that keeping kids in their classes was less disruptive to their learning and, in the end, helped them advance more quickly.

Too often, pull-out programs are disconnected from what students are learning the rest of the day.  Often, pull-out programs differ in structure, content and texts/materials. So how do you set up an in-class support model and how do you make it work?  I have some basic suggestions, based on my years of working as an in-class support teacher and based on several models I’ve seen in action.  Please note that these programs are not specific to kids with IEPs–those students MAY require different structures or interventions.
Scheduling: This is usually the biggest challenge.  If teachers and administrators plan in advance, however, support teachers can work in highly productive ways.  For example, in one K-2 school I work in there is a large population of ELLs.  Each of the three ESL teachers is assigned to one grade.  In that school there are 6 classes on a grade, so each teacher can push-in to several classes per day.  Students who need double periods can be pulled out.  But, in this situation, the support teacher and the classroom teachers are using the same structure and curriculum across the grade, with texts that are easy enough for ELLs to understand. In schools where there are more ELLs or at-risk students, or fewer support teachers, administrators have opted to cluster the ELLs or at-risk students in fewer classes.  When I worked in NY, my principal arranged it so that I worked with students before school so that these kids didn’t need to be pulled out.  With creative scheduling, in-class support can work really well.
That’s the administrative part.  So what’s the teacher part? Here are some tips for in-class support teachers.
Leave your ego at the door.  Excuse me, what did you say?  This is just my opinion. Based on my experience.  But I believed in following the lead of the classroom teacher.  Don’t worry if you think you “know” more than he does.  Don’t be put off if you believe you’re a “better” teacher than she is.  Once you get a feel for the style of the teacher you’re working with, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to offer suggestions and to teach some of the lessons yourself.  Then you can get in there and show off some ESL methodology or a strategy that you know helps struggling readers or writers.
Know the curriculum and teaching model.  Don’t rely on what you learned at grad school to work in every classroom.  If your school is using balanced literacy, which is considered best practice right now, get to know how it works.  Then use it with at-risk kids.
Get to know the classroom teacher. Make it a point to observe the classroom teacher a couple times to get a feel for his or her style.  Once you get to know the teacher you can decide how you might fit in best. In my schools we were doing reading and writing workshops.  I set up my schedule so that I could walk into the middle of a lesson, help students during the guided practice part, then work with a small group or one-to-one with each of my learners. Most of the time it didn’t matter what specific lesson the teacher was teaching–the kids were sent off to do independent reading or writing and I was always able to help them get a little better by having a conference or a small group session in reading or writing.  Which leads me to small groups and conferences.
Get really good at conferring and working with strategy groups.  I won’t even say get good at guided reading.  Just because kids are all in one at-risk group or all non-native English speakers it doesn’t mean they read at the same level.  Or that they’re the same kind of readers.  Guided reading is based on similar reading abilities or needs and you can’t count on that for your groups.  One way to approach this situation is to teach a strategy that several kids in your group need to know, and they can practice it using texts at their own level.  I conferred.  For reading, I found it much more effective and efficient to sit with each child as he read his independent book, than it was to try to make a group work.
Pass the notebook.  The classroom teachers that I supported kept notes on each of their conferences.  Most used a small notebook that they kept inside student reading folders. The child would come to me with the folder, I’d look at any previous notes the classroom teacher had taken, then do my own conference and add my notes to the notebook.  That way I could build on what the teacher had taught and she could build on what I had taught.
Offer help in your area of expertise.  What classroom teacher wouldn’t want a support teacher to model a helpful ESL-type of lesson?  Who wouldn’t want a chance to see a lesson designed to help the struggling reader or writer? Classroom teachers know the content and we hope that most are skilled at reaching ALL learners, but the fact is, your training and your knowledge of your students is beneficial to all kids and you should feel free to offer lesson support.  In one school I work in, the classroom teacher has two support teachers.  They plan a unit of study together, and each teacher models every third lesson.  If you’re really in sync, one teacher could handle one portion of a lesson and one could model a different part.
Above all, collaborate and cooperate.  Plan together whenever possible, even if it means you do it during lunch.  When you have a good idea, share it in a helpful way. When problems come up, speak openly and honestly.  Two teachers should be better than one.  Remember–you’re doing this for the kids.