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Good relations

It can be daunting for a teacher to share a classroom with another adult. Kirsty Leishman suggests ways to make the relationship work to the advantage of everyone

One of my most daunting moments as a new secondary school teacher was the appearance one day of the formidable Ms Davies - a special needs assistant whose greying hair and steely authority wreaked havoc with my fragile confidence. Her 20 years' classroom experience almost matched my living age and I vowed silently to allow her to do what she wanted so as not to ruffle her superior feathers. The situation was made worse because I had been given no warning she was coming.

Of course, it's not like this any more. Most teachers expect to have support staff in their classes, especially in primary schools. But that doesn't mean the relationship is always easy, that teachers automatically know how to work with other adults, or that assistants always have the chance to contribute to the full. For instance, when assistants go on courses about literacy or numeracy, teachers often don't know what the TA has learned.

In theory, another skilled professional can be a godsend. They can offer support in the form of specialist language or technical skills; a resource for further individual pupil time; a second set of eyes - never mind a person for the teacher to share ideas with. This appears to amount to adding value, so the teacher can get on with his or her professional role for the good of the class.

But the benefits will emerge only after time and attention has been spent building the relationship between teacher and assistant ahead of that first shared day in the classroom. Teachers and classroom assistants need to be able to work with a common outlook and shared purpose.

After the formidable Ms Davies joined my class, it took a while for us to settle into one another's working rhythm, and I am convinced now I could have made far more use of her experience than I did. But I did not know how to achieve that, and was terrified of getting it wrong and appearing to boss or patronise her. I wonder how many other young, or, indeed, older teachers find themselves in this position?

The relationship could have got off to a far smoother start if:l We had met ahead of her first appearance in the classroom

* I had asked what her skills were and we had discussed how to make best use of them in relation to the pupils

* She and I had already eyed one another up and got over the potential shock of our age difference. (One unhelpful child piped: "Miss, is she your granny?") Teachers are trained in the complex task of educating and managing children, not adults. Many organisations, in the private and public sectors alike, make the mistake of assuming that the ability to manage people is a natural skill. The Government has now recognised this gap, and the Teacher Training Agency and the General Teaching Council are developing training for teachers in working with other adults in the classroom.

Whether the task is to work with one or six others, there are principles and practices of good people management that I believe everyone required to work with another person should learn. The trick is to focus on and capture the tacit elements of successful communication: creating rapport, good listening skills, questioning. These provide the ground rules: honesty, trust, openness, mutual respect. A positive working relationship flourishes in this environment.

For the teacher and assistant, an added challenge is that their relationship is played out in front of a live audience. Planning how to operate may therefore be useful: "When you are leading X, I will get on with group Y, so as not to confuse," or ask: "How should we best carry out the exercise?" Even the obvious: "What shall I call you?" could avoid embarrassment.

Asking questions is a powerful way of gaining trust and confidence for the teacher and assistant. Teachers should overcome any feelings of discomfort at appearing to give up some of the classroom authority that they have been trained to acquire.

Appearing not to know an answer is not a weakness. In fact, the opposite is true: the ask as opposed to tell approach will speak volumes about your self-confidence, as underneath the question is a tacit statement of knowing one's own position. Open, non-judgemental questions provide the basis for common ground between teacher and assistant.

Training in people skills would be of great benefit for teachers. Without preparation and space for the teacher to reflect on working with an assistant, the relationship could fail to get off the ground. Teachers deserve to be recognised for their professional expertise, which should not assume they are jacks of all trades.

Support staff are playing increasingly significant roles in the classroom, so let us enable them to make the most of their partnership with teachers.

Kirsty Leishman is a life and work coach

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