3 Keys to Building Lasting Relationships with Teaching Associates

If you work with special education students, you have probably experienced a teaching associate in your classroom at some point.  I worked at a school that housed the entire district’s special education program, so I had associates in my room on a daily basis, often multiple times each day. At first, I found this a little intimidating.  Most of the associates were older than me or had worked in the building for a longer period of time and I felt that I owed them a level of respect.  I would not correct their instruction or tell them how I would like them to work with a particular student.

Over the years, I have learned that I am the teacher and the art professional in the classroom.  As such, it is my job and responsibility to build a rapport with all students and associates so that my room functions in the best possible way and benefits everyone.  Here are 3 things that have helped me to build a positive and beneficial relationship with associates over the years.

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1. Be clear about your expectations for students and adult staff.  I kick off the year with a welcome letter given to each teaching associate.  This letter is extremely welcoming and positive, but it also provides detailed expectations for my art room.  This letter includes goals for specific students and suggestions for appropriate accommodations.  (For example, I absolutely hate it when associates do the art work for the student, but sometimes they feel pressured to produce pleasing work.  This is an area I definitely address in my letter.)  Teachers who have taken AOE’s online class, Autism and Art, were able to write a letter like this for one of their assignments, and have found it very helpful.  In my experience, it is best to begin on a positive note with expectations right up front.

2. Be consistent. Schedule or staffing changes in the special education room means that a different associate might bring a student to art class, or even a substitute associate.  I suggest making a sub folder and keeping it handy.  This folder should contain classroom rules, special accommodations and suggestions for appropriate interventions.  You could even throw your associate welcome letter in!

3. If there is an issue, nip it!  This one is the most challenging, but also the most important pieces.  I have worked with so many different associates over the years and have had all kinds of issues from excessive talking to other associates in the room to leaving students unattended.  I even had an associate bring the SPED class pet (a flying squirrel) to the art room in her sweatshirt pocket.  Not a huge deal, right?  Until you are in the middle of a clay demo and the little guy decides to start making noise.  Student attention…vanished!

My rule of thumb is two occurrences warrants a conversation (except for special circumstances like the flying squirrel.  I let that associate know that he was too much of a distraction after the first offense.)  Just keep the conversation positive, but honest.  It will prevent the problem from spiraling out of control and you will gain respect in the long run.

How do you build lasting relationships with teaching associates? 

Any interesting stories to share? (Please be sure to remain confidential.)

Want to learn more tips about working with special education students?  Check out my presentation for AOE’s 2013 Conference: 5 Adaptations for Students with Autism.

Heather Crockett

Heather is AOE’s Project Manager and an expert in differentiation, curriculum development, and assessment. She is a veteran teacher in the art room and at the graduate level.


  • HipWaldorf

    This is an excellent post. I had never thought of approaching teaching associates proactively or in this manner. I have one right now that talks loudly which implies the other students can talk, when they should be quietly focused. She also encourages the other students to come to her all the time during my class because she enjoys helping everyone. I like her very much, but these are very distracting and was unsure of how to manage it without going to her supervisor – which I do not want to do because she does an excellent job otherwise. I will create a sheet and give it to each teaching associate next year. Thank you.

    • The new school year is a great time to start fresh. Good luck!

  • I can just imagine the flying squirrel distracting the clay demonstration! That is too funny. Early in my career I had a terrible time speaking up and advocating for my students when something didn’t feel right, and just like you, over time it became second nature. I would also show my associates where I kept my visual pic system for the art room and make them feel at home with materials so they felt empowered to try my suggested strategies.

  • Lisa

    Thanks for the post! This issue has been on my radar since student teaching. I was teaching a 1st grade clay fish lesson. This particular class had 3 special needs students, each with their own associate. So in addition to the 27 1st graders, there were 5 adults in the room (myself and cooperating teacher included.) As I’m teaching, associates were in the back chatting loud enough that it was hard for me to concentrate on what I was saying. Then one had the nerve to answer a phone call. She can’t legally leave her student so she stood in the back to take the call (granted, I learned later it was her husband who was in Afghanistan and calls only once a week… but still a major distraction.) I was so furious. I vowed never to let this happen in my class.

    Now, going into my 3rd year – I have an issue with an associate on her phone ALL the time – texting and on Facebook. Not paying attention to her student at all, and giving him restrictions like not using scissors! So she does that for him – and I know I don’t need to tell you how frustrating that is! I’ve tried talking to her about it but it doesn’t change.

    I had decided this year to write a letter to all associates, as you said you do. However, this is just one of my buttons that’s been pushed one too many times. I am having the hardest time sounding polite while getting my point across that this is important. Would you share your letter or give some tips as to HOW to write it welcoming and positive? Thanks!!

    • HipWaldorf

      This is sooo tough. I have assistants that talk (and not whispers!), and I am trying to come up with a solution as well. Are teachers allowed to use cell phones during school hours? We are not. Our school was realigned, so I will have even more assistants this year. Basically I feel these assistants are showing disrespect and role modeling that the students can ignore us as well. We ought to feel empowered to speak up and address this, it is just how to do it.

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