One of the most powerful and potentially transformative tools at our disposal in schools is a great quality relationship between teachers and teaching assistants (TAs). When honed and nurtured, developed and cherished, this relationship can lead to genuine improvements in teaching and learning, and the enhanced development of independence in young learners.
Regardless of whether TAs are working with the whole class, targeted groups or individuals within a class, or on withdrawal interventions outside the class, the foundations of great working relationships with TAs are anchored in crystal clear expectations and well-defined roles, as well as a joint strategy for teaching and learning.
If you want to focus on the deployment of, and effective working relationships with the TAs in your school, these ideas may help:
Five steps to great working relationships
1. Time to collaborate
Allocate time for the discussion of planning and preparation so that the time in each lesson is clearly focused. This doesn’t need to take inordinate amounts of time, but it does need to happen. Even if that means slightly adjusting a TA’s hours or facilitating time for TAs and teachers to collaborate during PPA time. Where this does not happen, there is a likelihood that maximum benefit from the TA in the classroom will not be gained.
2. Time to feedback
Make sure that feedback systems are in place and are utilised. Regular conversations, whether in person or via some written methods, are essential for keeping the focus on teaching and learning and the needs of any specific children you are working with. Find time-efficient ways of getting this job done.
Research has shown (see “Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants” below) that any preparation time that teachers and TAs manage to get together should be used to ensure that TAs have essential “need to knows” – concepts, facts, information being taught; skills to be learned, applied, practiced or extended; intended learning outcomes; and expected/required feedback. Without taking these steps there is a real risk that TAs will simply be support for getting tasks completed. This is not sufficient. It is the “need to knows” that will help to ensure that learning and understanding is anchored in each child.
4. Grow independence
Develop independence as far as possible. This works particularly well where there can be staff continuity and the working relationship can develop over time. A genuinely collaborative environment can give TAs the confidence to grow their independence in the role.
5. Develop understanding
Make sure that there is mutual understanding of the role in the classroom of questioning, wait time, prompting, modelling and self-scaffolding. Having a great working understanding of these tools can equip TAs to boost learning and understanding in the children they work with.
As we work to enhance the relationships between teachers and TAs in schools, there are the inevitable pitfalls to avoid. For example:
Five pitfalls to avoid
1. Complement, don’t replace
Never use TAs to replace teachers. They are best used to add value to the work of a teacher but not as a replacement. Research has shown (see “Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants” below) that children who struggle most with the learning on offer need just as much time with their teacher as other children. Facilitating that through the effective use of the complementary roles of teacher and TA in the classroom is ideal.
2. Learning and understanding, not task completion
The focus for TAs can often be on task completion but this should ideally come second to a focus on learning and understanding. What is really going on in the classroom and how can we ensure all children can access that?
3. Professional development for TAs
TAs should be fully supported in their role with sufficient opportunities for training and development. Anything else is a false economy.
4. Independence not dependence
Dependence on the TA by the child or children can develop over time if the aim of any interventions drifts from learning and understanding. Give the least amount of help first so that children can tackle a task themselves, intervening only if progress cannot be made.
5. Disconnected learning
Interventions can at times be disconnected from the learning going on in the classroom. This is inefficient. Interventions should be consistent with what the children in the classroom are doing, building on it, and extending it, through making the links explicit.
TAs are key to maximising the potential in teaching and learning in the classroom. Getting the relationship right between TAs and teachers is crucial, as is having an overall aim of independence for the children in our care. As with any aspect of the work of schools, we can always reflect and improve, but these key points just might be helpful on this journey.
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About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.