Non-Classroom Educators Help Students Cope Inside and Outside the Classroom

Elizabeth Duffey recently renewed her national board certification, but she isn’t a teacher. After 37 years of teaching high school English, Duffey wanted to impact student achievement in a different way. So she became an instructional facilitator for Tacoma Public Schools in Washington.

Duffey now helps teachers teach more effectively. She works at a district level bringing teachers together to converse around groundbreaking research and its implications in their classrooms.

“If I were to go back to the classroom, I would positively affect the lives of about 150 students a year,” says Duffey, who works with dozens of teachers and higher education instructors throughout the district. “Now, I affect the learning of 30,000 students.”

An instructional facilitator is categorized by the National Education Association (NEA) and other organizations as a “non-classroom educator.” Other job titles in this category include library media specialist, counselor, psychologist, social worker, and speech pathologist. While these jobs are essential to the academic success of students, many of these positions are being unwisely eliminated as a cost-cutting measure.

The American Community Survey, an ongoing statistical report by the U.S. Census Bureau, shows a steady decline of K-12 non-teaching professionals from 428,000 in 2008, to 414,000 (2009) and 411,000 (2010) – even though school officials agree that these professionals remove learning barriers and help students examine their strengths and talents, interests and insecurities.

“A student’s psychological functioning has a significant impact on academic success,” says Dr. Mark Sigler, a school psychologist with Lewis County Schools in Hohenwald, Tennessee. “I have worked with students who were so focused on controlling their emotional upset, that most of their cognitive abilities were used to maintain their composure. This results in a constriction of cognitive functioning which interferes with attention, memory, and reasoning abilities.”

This interference with student growth and development is sometimes erroneously attributed to a lack of motivation.

“I am frequently involved in developing and implementing behavior intervention plans which address excessive absenteeism and lack of academic motivation,” says Dr. Sigler. “When the function of these behaviors is properly assessed, improved attendance and motivation can be reinforced and supported successfully.”

Absenteeism, retention and dropout rates would increase without the services of psychologists and other non-classroom educators, says Sigler. Without intervention, for example, students suffering from depression might be seen by parents and peers as being lazy.

“Many students who did not receive services from a school psychologist would struggle academically due to a failure to identify disabilities impairing their academic success,” he says. “There would also be more disruptive acting out in classrooms due to frustration with not receiving instruction which meets the student’s needs.”

At Evansville High School in Evansville, Wisconsin, school counselor Randy Keister is concerned that students who are depressed, suicidal, or on the verge of dropping out might get overlooked among the school’s 525 students without the services of non-classroom educators.

“We deal with a wide range of things, such as suicide prevention, academic progress, college admission requirements,” he says. “I’m not sure screening for depression and other procedures will get done without non-classroom educators.”

Even students who aren’t struggling benefit from the expertise of non-classroom educators. When a senior approached Keister about dropping chemistry, he assured her that if she was going to study health science in college and enter the health care field as a career, that she would need high school chemistry.

“I talked to her about short term considerations and long-term goals,” he says. “Some students don’t put all the pieces together. I’m happy to say, she is doing well in her chemistry class.”

Monitoring student progress at Evansville is one of the goals of the school’s Building Intervention Team (BIT), which identifies struggling students and assigns them individualized instruction, such as a tutor. A school psychologist, social worker (at-risk coordinator), the principal and Keister meet twice a month to discuss how students are doing academically and behaviorally.

“We try to make connections with students,” Keister says. “If they need help, we try to identify the best solution.”

Similar to the BIT, Duffey and her colleagues in Tacoma recently created a literacy framework – “our Constitution,” she says — to identify professional development for educators, which curriculum to adopt, and what pedagogy best serves all students, not just the easy-to-educate.

“I get to collaborate with a team of very bright people to bring about grass-roots policy,” she says. “Without non-classroom educators to bring teachers together in important conversations, too many teachers would go back to being independent contractors.”

To earn her National Board Certification, Duffey had to provide strong evidence that she had an impact on student learning.

“In the classroom I could see the direct impact of my practice on student learning in my students’ achievements,” she says. “In my current position, it is more difficult for me to show my influence on students, but I know that every teacher I affect through professional development, coaching, curriculum, or policy goes on to affect hundreds of students.”