The Cast of Characters
If you’ve never worked in a school building, you may be surprised to learn how many different professionals play a role in your child’s education. While classroom teachers are obvious stars, the supporting cast of school staff is equally important albeit much lesser known. Without the behind-the-scenes info, it’s hard to know who to turn to when you’re seeking support for your child. Here is an (undeniably condensed and over-simplified) introduction to the school’s cast of characters.
Although Principals and Assistant Principals work as a team, things are often organized such that one person takes the “lead” in a certain area. For example, principals typically take the lead on budgeting, staffing, and class lists. Assistants Principals may take the lead on student discipline, assessments, and special education.
Why this is important to know: When parents call with questions or concerns, they will typically be directed to the administrator who takes the lead in that area. In other words, don’t feel like you’re being dismissed by the Principal if you’re directed to the Assistant Principal when you call to report that your child was pushed by a peer on the bus.
Your child may have more than one teacher, and you may not even know it. Sometimes teachers “co-teach”, meaning two teachers are in the classroom at the same time. Students may also have content-specific teachers, even in elementary school. For example, my son’s classroom splits up into reading groups based on reading level. Consequently, he goes to the “Reading Room” and works with a reading teacher. In other schools, the class may stay together, but the teacher rotates; one teacher may teach reading to all 3 first grade classes, another teacher may do all the math, while the third teaches social sciences.
Many students also receive instruction from classroom assistants or aids. These individuals are typically paraprofessionals. Consequently, the level of experience, teaching style, and role of assistants can vary greatly. Assistants may work primarily with one student (special education assistant), the whole class (classroom assistant), or several classrooms (grade-level assistant). Because assistants’ contractual hours typically do not include after-school events or conferences, most parents do not even have an opportunity to meet them.
Why this is important to know: If you have questions about your child’s performance at school, you may want to seek input from more than the classroom teacher. While he or she is your main point-of-contact, others who work with your child in different environments may have valuable observations to share. Aside from knowing who your child is working with, it also important to know why your child is working with a different teacher (advanced, remedial, other?), what they’re working on (specific skills or interventions), and how long he or she will be with that teacher.
The Student Services Team
Schools are also filled with many specialists who provide services to support students, parents, and teachers. You may not know them, but they make tremendous contributions to the buildings in which they work.
Special Education Teachers have specialized training (degree and licensing) for teaching students with disabilities. They are creative problem-solvers who design instruction to meet individual students’ needs. Even if your child does not have a disability, a special education teacher might be invited to attend a parent problem-solving meeting with you because of his or her unique viewpoint. He or she may also co-teach in your child’s classroom.
School Psychologist: A school psych has a degree in Educational Psychology; therefore, I like to think of them as “scientists of learning”. They posses a tremendous breadth and depth of knowledge about the “whole child”. They are specialists in social-emotional, behavioral, and academic functioning. Psychs work to determine the “why” and “what” … why are students having difficulty, and what can we do to help them improve? Don’t be surprised if they show up to a parent meeting with a file of student data and a support plan that is ready to be rolled out.
School Social Worker (SSW) or School Counselor: Most elementary schools have one or the other, but lucky schools may have both. These professionals typically work with students and their families. They provide social-emotional support for students at school and often help connect parents with resources in the community. Families experiencing the stress of financial, medical, or other domestic issues can turn to these specialists for support.
Occupational Therapist (OT): These specialists focus on fine motor skills such as handwriting, cutting, and typing. They also have expertise in sensory processing. They typically only provide direct services to students who have IEPs, but they often consult with teachers about other students who demonstrate fine motor weaknesses.
Physical Therapist (PT): These specialists work with students on gross motor skills that are essential to school. This may include building core strength to sit in a chair or use the stairs. They typically only work with students who have IEPs and are often shared between several schools.
Speech & Language Pathologist (SLP): These specialists work with students on speech (producing specific sounds, sound fluency or smoothness, etc) and/or language (comprehending language, expressing oneself, etc). If you’re wondering if that little lisp is a concern, the SLP is the one to ask.
Why this is important to know: When you child is demonstrating difficulties at school, these specialists are excellent resources for parents. They can provide information about typical and atypical child development, share strategies for parents to use at home, and can direct you to helpful community resources. When significant concerns arise, they may evaluate your child’s skills and provide services. Because of their expertise, they are also common participants at parent meetings.
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