Stressed By Assistant

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an assistant:

I am a teacher in a Pre-K setting. My classroom recently started expanding after I opened it up in August of this year. My boss put out ads to find me an assistant teacher for my classroom. My boss ended up hiring a floating teacher from her old school to be my assistant. She told me after she hired her that sometimes she has issues finding English words because she speaks Spanish but it should not affect anything and I said this wouldn’t be a problem.

She comes in to our room on the first day and cannot speak any English. She can read my hand motions for certain things and knows my name as well as the children’s names for the most part. A few of them she cannot pronounce. Trying to communicate the simplest of things is an issue and now we have been together about a month and she mixes Spanish phrases with a few English words and it completely confuses the kids.

I am all for diversity don’t get me wrong but it is almost like having an extra student in my room that needs constant guiding. I also feel strange about everything because she is 20 years my senior and I do not want to offend her. I am beyond stressed and do not know what to do. Is there something I can do differently to help her or do I need to have a sit down with my boss?

Signed, Stressed By Assistant


Dear Stressed by Assistant:
You are sensitive and don’t want to offend your assistant. That’s important. Associate Workplace Doctor Tina Rowe Lewis, upon reading your description of the situation, has remarked:
“I wonder if the assistant knows how unhelpful she is, given her language issues? However, it seems to me the school administrator should have been consulted the moment the language situation became an issue.

In my opinion it would be much different if the students were older and could. See the value of finding ways to communicate effectively in diverse ways.

In this case I view it as similar to any tradesman or professional who needs to rely on an assistant for immediate help as well as discussions related to the tasks at hand. Pointing and sign language mixed with imprecise words are not substitute for a classroom partner who can provide full support.”

Yes, communication with your assistant can cause you and your Pre-K children confusion. Because you don’t understand her that is particularly stressful—probably more so than for the children. You were not consulted when she was hired and you didn’t know the difficulty that would come, so you were cooperative and expressed the “no problem” to your boss. Apparently, after this one month of frustration, there are two things waiting to be communicated:
1. To tell your boss that you were wrong to say, “this wouldn’t be a problem.”
2. To confront your assistant, for short I’ll call her Maria. Of course you will use her real name, and share the difficulties you sense.

How you do this probably will challenge your ability to communicate, particularly because you don’t want to tell your boss she made a mistake and you don’t want to hurt Maria’s feelings.
Before you confront either your boss or Maria, might it be helpful for you to see this as a time to become more specific with instances of when Maria and you misunderstand and consequently she causes problems for you and the children? Also this might be a time for you specifying in writing what you want her to do—a job description—the one, two, three sequences want her to do?

Ideally you will be able to train her or your boss will replace Maria. However, probably what you see as ideal is not going to happen, so you must face that fact. With this in mind, perhaps to weather what transpires, you will need to assess your own mental well-being. Can you grit it through? What might you do to make it less stressful? Are you willing to problem-solve with short-term and longer-term solutions? Do you make the problem worse by being stressed over things not going as you would like? If you were boss, what would you do now?

You must choose whether to speak first with your boss or Maria. You want to be candid but also for them each to understand how stressed you feel. If your month of trying to work with Maria have convinced you that you can’t go on, you may elect to meet with your boss first.
Usually it is my advice when there is a problem of a superior with an assistant, for the superior to meet first with the assistant to learn how she views the situation—in your communicating with her assisting you and in her understanding the difficulties you see in her assisting the children. This is what I advise.

Once you have a time out session with Maria, after the children are gone, and have been able to learn if she realizes the specific things that you want of her and what has gone wrong, you will be better to know what to do. If that session supports your thinking that she must be replaced, you can then say to your boss, “I’ve made a special effort to work with Maria and also met with her about our problem in teaching the children. I’ve concluded Maria simply isn’t able. She’s not helping me and hurting the children. I need a different assistant.” Or you will say, “Here’s what I see are the problems with Maria, what do you advise?”

A time-out session with Maria, I think should begin with you listening to her version of what she sees as problems and if she understands how unhelpful she is in specific instances. If language is a problem, even such a session will illustrate why you are stressed. Likely this will require simple one or two prompting questions, such as: What do you think we accomplished today? What do you like about our teaching? What are the things you can help with? What of my instructions do not understand? What would you want me to do to make your job better? These questions likely will evolve to you talking about specific instances of misunderstanding and efforts made to deal with them. You will be able to give her examples of where things have gone wrong and how much this bothers you.

In any such session, the rule of thumb is that MISUNDERSTANDING IS TO BE EXPECTED. Perhaps you will find it difficult to be calm and patient and so will Maria. It likely will go slow. Times when one individual feels misunderstood are frustrating—sometimes almost to becoming angry, tearful and/or clamming up. This occurs between people with the same language and occurs more frequently between persons with different native languages.

At best, I see this as an opportunity! The outcome of time-out should follow with an agreement on what to do—a plan to how to make Maria’s assistance more effective. Spelliout both in writing and orally instructions. Practice those as with new dance steps. Also with the OK of your boss, they might entail for Maria playing an active role in teaching—teaching the children simple greetings in Spanish, poems, songs and physical exercises. Children can learn two different words in English for the same thing. They can also learn a word in Spanish and English for the same thing—such as thank you and Gracias. Your classroom might have a special place to post pictures with captions in both English and Spanish. See • Picture in Spanish | English to Spanish……Get the most accurate English to Spanish translations. Fast … a picture it is the single most important picture Picasso ever painted a picture of a Spanish …la imagen (F)
A picture is worth a thousand words.Una imagen vale más que mil palabras.
Might this prove instructional for you as well? I see this as an opportunity I would want for my children.

Likely this is enough said for you to consider if any of these thoughts address the stressful situation that you will face today and next week. Do they make sense? Do they convince you that you can cope and even find ways to work with Maria for the betterment of your children? I’m sure that is your focus because you have reached out to Ask the Workplace Doctors. I predict that you will help shape a constructive and creative resolution to your frustration. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS—that’s a new word for you and suggests how you might think positively approach this stressful time in your career. Please do let us know what you do and how it works or whatever happens. I’m convinced you are good and can be an exceptional teacher.
–William Gorden