I’ve been fortunate to work with more than 200 schools as part of our Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) programme. While all are very different, almost all of them tell us that the lack of opportunities for teachers and teaching assistants to meet – to plan, prepare, feedback and talk about pupils’ learning and progress – is the biggest barrier to fully unlocking the potential of classroom support.
We ought to reflect on why effective teacher-TA liaison is an essential, not merely desirable, component of maximising TA impact.
Here’s how one TA put it to me: “You come into a classroom, you listen to the 20 minutes of teaching, and from that, you should know. And then you’re to feed it to the children. It’s scary”.
Unpacking this, we can see that in the absence of a pre-lesson briefing, this TA has to tune in to the teacher’s whole class input in order to understand the concepts being taught, skills to be learned or applied, tasks and instructions, and the intended learning outcomes. Then she’s expected to apply her judgement and provide any differentiation she deems necessary (this is what she means by "feed it to the children").
Add to this the very probable subject and instructional knowledge differential that exists between teachers and TA, and the fact that she’s working with those who find it hardest to access teaching. Scary, indeed.
So, what have the schools we’ve worked with done to overcome the issue of TAs going into lessons blind? Here's four steps to more effective joint planning between TAs and teachers.
1. Sort out TA working hours
Firstly, standardise TAs’ hours of work. Historical arrangements often mean the TA workforce has idiosyncratic hours of work. In consultation, schools have created up to two hours of meeting time a week by establishing a set pattern of hours for a significant majority, if not all, of their TAs – say 8.30am to 3pm. Teachers and TAs feel the benefits almost instantly, and TAs’ sense of value and confidence soar.
2. Ensure time spent is productive
Secondly, set expectations. Tempting though it might be, teachers should not use this valuable non-contact time to get TAs to do admin. Make it sacrosanct. Teacher-TA liaison time is for learning, not laminating! Use it to ensure TAs acquire the lesson "need to knows".
3. Ensure the TA role is part of planning
Thirdly, plan lessons effectively. In an earlier blog, I described how TAs should be deployed in ways that supplement teaching. Teachers need to think about how to make use of the additional capacity in their classroom to achieve learning objectives and ensure they spend time with learners who are struggling most.
4. Don't forget feedback
Fourthly, plan for feedback. Effective and efficient lesson planning starts with a good understanding of what pupils could and couldn’t do at the end of the last lesson. Ask TAs to record their observations of pupil performance during lessons. Sticky notes are perfect. Be clear about what you want TAs to feed back at the end of the lesson.
The pace of the school day is relentless. So is the workload – for teachers and TAs. In my experience, it’s the headteachers who get their schools working smarter, not longer, that make the most gains on improving TAs’ readiness for, and effectiveness in, lessons.
Think of it this way: using 5 per cent of TAs’ time to meet and plan with teachers means they are more likely to be effective in the remaining 95 per cent of their time.
Rob Webster is director of the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) project and a researcher at UCL Institute of Education