School Improvement Agency - Classroom assistants

Classroom assistants

By Jane Wilson

Teaching Assistants explosion
It’s all hands to the front in the battle to push up standards in schools and TAs have been drafted in to schools in huge numbers since Estelle Morris (remember her?) led the drive to increase their numbers over 10 yers ago. More recently the government has tried to reduce them again, by withdrawing funding and releasing studies which question their impact on school performance. However, schools see other benefits, provided TAs are integrated into teaching and learning.

Supporting the Teaching Assistant – A Good Practice Guide, states that: "Recent research and inspection findings confirm the tremendous contribution well-managed and well-trained teaching assistants can make." There is even talk of universal training provision, both for the newly-recruited and at a higher level for more experienced assistants. There is, however, no talk of well-paid or even better-paid – which is a pity, as most TAs do what they do for less than the hourly rate charged by a cleaner.

Use those resources
One difficulty with managing teaching assistants as a group is that their nature and abilities vary wildly, from being at their best when washing paint pots to holding two degrees and a physiotherapy training. Treated right, the majority can be a power in the classroom. Team teaching, whizzy displays, fast marking, intensive one-to-ones with problem pupils and cups of tea: all these could be yours.

Yes, the pencils have to be sharpened but it is a waste of human resources if that is all your classroom assistant ever gets to do. "Find out what they enjoy doing, find out what they are good at, find out their past experience and then employ all three," advises Judy Jackson, a primary teacher in Oxford.

Her feeling that classroom assistants can be undervalued comes from knowledge: a qualified teacher in America, she worked as a TA for two years on arrival in Britain, before gaining recognised teacher status over here. "Some days I would feel that I had wasted my creativity."

Check those backgrounds
This may be more of a problem for the TA who has been a teacher. Even those who have done something reasonably challenging, creative or distinguished in their former lives may readily admit that they are at a loss when faced with 30 children. They will be grateful that they are generally working with only one or two or a few children at a time.

A teacher won’t, of course, find out much about their TA without some digging. If they or you are new, a chat on the phone before term starts or a session over a drink would be well worth the invested time. While you will want to audit their skills, experience and attitudes, don’t get distracted by their amazing life stories. What has been their experience of working with children? Do they know the classroom procedures that you want followed? Do they know your priorities? Do they even know where things are stored?

Communication, communication, communication
Tales are told with mis-placed pride of how none of the staplers in particular classrooms work or how no-one mentioned to the TA that little Aphra was a diabetic until she had a hypoglycaemic attack. Such inefficiency and under-communication is a waste of time and energy. As Judy Jackson says, "You and the classroom assistant are working for the same end."

Communication is the key. If they are working with a small group of children, make it clear to the TA what you want the children to achieve. Spell out the areas where they may need particular help. If you leave your TA a list of five things to do, name the order of priority. Let them know what matters to you in the classroom and what does not. They can’t read your mind. If you want certain children to be stretched by always using a dictionary rather than just asking a spelling, for example – tell your TA.

If the class has a structured timetable, make sure that the TA knows what it is – and also that you may diverge from it at any time. It will help them a lot if they understand the National Curriculum. They might not want a seminar on it but would be happy to take home videos.

Job planning
Have two types of job planned for the TA: the on-going that they can carry out in odd moments (tidying stock cupboards, mending books, doing photocopying that will be needed later in the term) and the immediate, which is whatever you need help with that second. They need a box or drawer or pigeon-hole of their own where you can leave each other messages and where they can store their own useful things.

Child watching
There are likely to be particular children who will need extra help or demand extra resources. It will be helpful to both of you to alert the TA to who these are and why. Sketch out the kind of approach you would like the TA to take with these children. Encourage them to read their files (but remind them of privacy protocols). Take advantage of their observational skill potential - ask them to notice how children are doing in areas of work that may be a concern. Chatting with a classroom assistant, a child may reveal aspects of his or her life that the teacher has only guessed at.

If you want the children in your class to learn to be more independent, you may have to warn your TA not to be too ready to do things for them: their instincts are likely to be that it is their role to help children. You must also be ready to back up the TA’s authority. Some children may think – or say – "You’re not my teacher." Encourage the TA to let you know if a child shrugs off their authority.

Constructive criticism
Classroom assistants are prone to feeling the lowest of the low, partly because they can be switched from task to task at a moment’s notice. They serve the teacher and they serve the children and their own self-esteem may need boosting from time to time.

This does not mean never criticise. Tell them at the outset that you mean to advise them as part of ongoing training, lest they suddenly feel that they are being scrutinised or picked on. Do not, however, correct them in front of the children unless it can be done without their loss of face. Say privately – and politely – whatever needs to be said and remember that children’s feelings are not the only ones that can be hurt. Give them space to explain why they did something a certain way – a discussion can be fruitful.


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