Effective Practices : Human Resources

Classroom Assistants
Human Resources Section 8

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1. In what ways are assistants used in the classroom in Waldorf schools?
2. What training or experience is required for each of these positions?
3. When and why are assistants hired?
4. Are assistant positions formally considered developmental slots at the school?
5. How are assistants compensated?
6. What do schools find to be the greatest benefits from the use of classroom assistants?
7. What are the guiding thoughts that schools should consider as they seek to add assistants to their program?

HR 8-1

In what ways are assistants used in the classroom in Waldorf schools?

The most common use of assistants is in the kindergarten/early childhood classrooms. Every school surveyed uses either an assistant or a co-teacher in kindergarten classrooms, unless the class is exceptionally small. The typical tasks of the assistant were well described by one school:

  • “The kindergarten assistants help the teachers in a variety of ways, and each teacher has a slightly different way of working with an assistant. Some ask the assistant to be responsible for the cooking and kitchen responsibilities, while others prefer the assistant to work more in the play area with the children. The assistants are important partners in the classroom, and are addressed as “teacher” or “Miss So-and-so” in the classroom in front of the children. Assistants each meet once a week with their supervising teacher to discuss various issues such as the lesson plan for the upcoming week, children of concern or the status of a difficult family situation. Assistants are welcome but not required to attend the weekly meetings of the Early Childhood department.”
  • A different school added, “Assistants are used in the nursery and kindergarten, but not in the parent child classes. Kindergarten assistants are the quiet doers in the classroom. They prepare snack and set the stage for the teachers. They participate and help guide, working from the background rather than in the forefront. They are scheduled in the classroom from 8:30 until 12:30 daily.”

Another common use of assistants is in handwork classes. Handwork assistants have a certain technical expertise and provide an additional opportunity for students to receive guidance and advice on work in progress. Assistants generally do not administer discipline nor do they serve as the ego presence in the class. Handwork classes are often split, with a teacher and assistant present with each half of the class so students get the necessary level of attention.

Main Lesson
An area in which there is a real difference of opinion between schools is the use of assistants during main lesson time. Some schools are quite committed to the use of assistants, and find them to be a tremendous benefit to the students and the class teacher. Other schools expressed concerns about whether an assistant subtracts from the authority and effectiveness of the class teacher. Another question that emerged is whether there are unacknowledged educational support needs present in the classroom that are better served by a remedial program rather than by using an assistant.

One school that is quite committed to the use of main lesson assistants described their program this way:

“Assistants are used in the grades in classes one through five today and will continue to be added through grade 8 a year at a time. They are scheduled from 8:30 until 11:10 each day. They help with snack and getting students ready to go and come back in from recess. They also work with individual students, assisting when children need help with their main lesson books. The assistant may also stay to help with painting, or for walks with the class in the youngest grades.

The hours vary with as many as 19 hours scheduled in the lowest grades, slowing dropping to about 10 hours in grades 4-6. In addition to main lesson time they may stay to help with skills classes.

The focus of the work of assistants shifts, as the children get older. For the younger grades the assistant spends much of his or her time helping the students while in the upper grades the support is for the teacher. This kind of work could include taking an extra period when a teacher needs a break to doing corrections for the teacher. There are general expectations about how assistants are used, but it is the responsibility of the class teacher to pick the tasks and to set the balance between time with the students and time supporting the teacher.”

The research also found that assistants are more commonly used in the lower grades in areas where the weather is more severe. Getting a group of first and second graders properly dressed to go out for recess after main lesson can be quite time consuming when the weather is inclement, and having an extra set of hands to aid in this transition is invaluable.

One school described it this way:

“The school is in a location where there are distinct seasons, and the logistics of getting the students ready to go out for recess can be daunting without support. The assistant is also able to give the class teacher a break when needed, and offers a second set of eyes when students are working in their books. In the early grades it is not possible to leave the students alone if someone is injured, and the assistant can provide coverage in this case. The assistant also helps with classroom cleanliness, and can be a valuable aid when the class teacher is working to form healthy habits in her young class. It is critical that the chemistry is positive between the class teacher and the assistant, otherwise the assistance can be more of a burden than a benefit.”

Other Assistants
Some schools mentioned using an assistant in games classes, especially on campuses where there is a lot of property and a games class may take place far from the main buildings. The assistant provides an additional adult presence during all activities, and can be an important support if an injury occurs. Another school has a regular member of the faculty sit in whenever a visiting faculty member is on campus to present a main lesson block in the high school. The regular faculty member is expected to maintain order and discipline in the classroom, freeing the guest to provide content without responsibility for classroom management.

Other schools mentioned choral and eurythmy accompanists in the context of assisting in the classroom. The expectations of these individuals vary widely and are usually a reflection of the individual accompanist’s talents and temperament. The primary expectation of an accompanist is one of musical proficiency; discipline and other support are a much lower priority.

HR 8-2

What training or experience is required for each of these positions?

Most schools require that kindergarten assistants be either fully trained or enrolled in a Waldorf teacher training program, and all schools expresses a desire for their assistants to meet this qualification. In some states all faculty members in the early childhood area are required to have completed a specified number of early childhood education units in addition to any Waldorf teacher training classes completed. This requirement typically is enforced if the kindergarten has a mixed age program and accepts children younger than the state’s stipulated age for kindergarten. In this case the early childhood program is subject to the state licensing requirements for daycare establishments.

In addition to training requirements, kindergarten assistants must be able to project the sense of a wholesome human being that is strong while able to work from the background. Parents that have already had some exposure to the program through their own children often fill these positions. People with experience working with young children are preferred candidates. Assistants must also be able to maintain confidentiality, and hold sensitive information about a child or a family situation with discretion and tact. Another important skill is the ability to refer parent questions to the teacher rather than feeling the need to answer these questions personally.

Handwork, Gardening, and Games Assistants
Typically these individuals are not trained Waldorf teachers, although it is certainly ideal if the assistant is in a training program. Usually these assistants are selected based on their particular technical expertise in an area. Handwork requires a depth of skill in several related areas, while a gardening assistant needs to be interested in biodynamic gardening rather than in gardening as a general topic. College students who are alumni of the school make ideal assistants in the sports and games programs.

Main Lesson Assistants
The ideal main lesson assistant is a trained teacher that is not yet ready to go into the classroom on a full time basis. One school described a fully trained teacher that had recently immigrated and needed a year in the country to strengthen her language skills before taking a class. Another school has an individual that is currently in the teacher-training program; her schedule has been adjusted to allow her Fridays off so she may continue in the training program. Other schools report that they have successfully used parents that are trained teachers from mainstream institutions; these parents understand and support Waldorf values and also bring a gift of professional expertise that is very helpful and supportive to the teacher and the students of a class.

HR 8-3

When and why are assistants hired?
Most schools that report using main lesson assistants shared that this decision was originally made when class size became “large”. The precise definition of “large” varies from school to school, but classes with more than 20 to 25 students were generally considered large. Schools using assistants report that the ability to meet the needs of the students required more attention, and that teachers were burning out trying to meet the students’ needs in large classes. The assistant program when it is successful has the dual benefit of supporting both teachers and students.

In the kindergarten assistants are used in classes with more than about 10-12 students. This number varies and may be as low as 7 students if the children are very young (e.g. a nursery class of 2 1/2 year olds would require an assistant if 7 or more students were enrolled.) Also, offsite kindergartens typically have two adults present, even if the class size is relatively small, as an added safety measure.

Assistants in other programs are brought in because of the level of interaction required with students such as in handwork, or due to supervisory issues in large outdoor environments such as in games or gardening.

HR 8-4

Are assistant positions formally considered developmental slots at the school?
Some schools formally recognize assistant positions as being a key part of their faculty development and recruiting programs, but every school recognized that these jobs consistently produce great teachers both for the school and for the broader movement. Most schools do not hire full time teachers unless they are Waldorf trained, and many also recognize that a training program is not a substitute for classroom experience. Assistants gain a valuable depth of experience while still in a training program, and are often provided opportunities to take on additional responsibilities in support of their professional development. These experiences could include substituting and teaching a regularly scheduled class such as beeswax modeling in the grades, or taking the story and leading the circle in the kindergarten.

The assistant’s growth is monitored by his or her supervising teacher, and feedback is given both informally and as part of the school’s ongoing evaluation process. One school noted that evaluation of assistants might easily fall outside of the school’s usual review cycle, as they tend to move on to new assignments within a year or two. For this reason it was suggested that special attention be given to this group of employees.

Oftentimes schools assign a mentor to individuals who are clearly viewed as being on a track of becoming a teacher. The assistant and her mentor meet regularly, and the faculty development committee chair checks in regularly to see how things are proceeding.

HR 8-5

How are assistants compensated?
There is a wide range of compensation models from school to school when discussing the topic of assistants. Typically handwork, gardening and games assistants are compensated on an hourly basis. Main lesson assistants, who are typically trained or in training programs, are usually paid a prorated salary. Kindergarten assistants typically begin on an hourly basis at rates that vary based on their years of experience working in the field. Second level assistants that are in training programs and carry additional classroom responsibilities such as story or circle may be paid a prorated salary. Each school makes its own policies in this area, and it is essential that the policies be fair and consistent among and between all classes of employees.

Part time personnel are generally ineligible for health care benefits. Some schools do offer prorated tuition remission to employees that reach a certain level of employment, perhaps half or three-quarters time. Other schools have begun to experiment with funding Waldorf teacher training for assistants instead of offering remission.

HR 8-6

What do schools find to be the greatest benefits from the use of classroom assistants?
For the trainees the opportunity to serve as an assistant is great training, especially if they are working with an experienced teacher. They get their foot in the door. For the school the use of an assistant allows individual students to get extra attention and support in the classroom. There is always some preparation that the assistant can do to help the teacher (set up paper, paints, etc.) and this is a benefit as well.

The assistant in the kindergarten has a quiet role, and the melancholic children are often drawn to this quiet nurturing presence. The parents are appreciative of the assistant as well; they have someone to speak with when the teacher is involved. Parents often feel comfortable sharing something with the assistant they don’t want to share directly with the teacher. The assistant brings a second set of eyes, and can also bring helpful observations about the children. The assistant can also serve as a second witness to classroom concerns during parent conferences.

Assistants can make wonderful substitutes, as they know the children and the rhythms of the day, and can bring a learning experience rather than just providing adult supervision during a teacher’s absence.

The assistant position is a valuable one because of the support it brings to both teachers and to students.

HR 8-7

What are the guiding thoughts that schools should consider as they seek to add assistants to their program?
Assistants should always be invited to attend faculty meetings and department meetings. It is wonderful if assistants are able to serve on a committee and support the life of the school in this way, but this is generally not a requirement.

The primary purpose for adding an assistant is that it serves the needs of the children. This said, the assistant position can be a wonderful teacher-training slot and can provide a real long-term benefit to the school. Treat these positions well, and fill them with individuals in which you see growth potential. Schools with assistants in every grade can benefit from the stability of having a few “career” assistants; otherwise schools are urged to fill these precious developmental slots with candidates that have real potential for the school and the movement.

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