Digging deep into a range of roles

9th January 2004 at 00:00
MANAGING TEACHING ASSISTANTS: A guide for headteachers, managers and teachers. By Anne Watkinson. RoutledgeFalmer pound;22.50

MAKING THE MOST OF TEACHING ASSISTANTS: THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO WORKING WITH THE TEACHING ASSISTANTS IN YOUR SCHOOL. By Lynn Cousins, Martin Higgs and Julie Leader. PfP Publishing pound;15 (additional copies for the same school pound;7.50). Order on 0870 241 0731 or www.pfp-publishing.com

BECOMING A TEACHING ASSISTANT. By Pat Drake, Angela Jacklin, Carol Robinson and Jo Thorpe. Paul Chapman Publishing pound;14.99 (pbk) pound;15.99 (hbk)


UNDERSTANDING CHILDREN'S LEARNING: A text for teaching assistants. Edited by Claire Alfrey. David Fulton pound;17

Anyone involved in the training of teaching assistants will tell you that here is a group of people united by a thirst for learning. For many this is a new, accessible route into demanding and satisfying work, and the desire to do well engenders an eagerness that's often humbling.

The emergence of a cadre of qualified assistants is also a challenge for heads and teachers, many of whom are unsure how to use them. One quoted by Ann Watkinson in Managing Teaching Assistants explains her love and enthusiasm for her job, but goes on to say: "Unfortunately this is frowned upon by some members of staff who, I feel, think TAs should be there to sharpen pencils and wash paintbrushes."

That was in 1998. Perhaps things have moved on since then, but it's surely still true that TAs are not perceived as a coherent group, with a clear status and role. As Anne Watkinson points out: "Teenagers may voice their desire to be a nursery nurse when they leave school, but few young people express the wish to be a TA."

Part of the problem is the range of roles that assistants fill. Anne Watkinson's attempt, with the aid of graphics and flow diagrams, to show how they fit into school and society, confirms the difficulty of drawing up a definition.

What is clear, though, is that the traditional attempt to separate the assistant from what's sometimes called "the professional task of teaching" is increasingly meaningless. The TA who works with a small group is, as one teacher in Anne Watkinson's book says, "teaching and guiding". Far from threatening the teacher, this makes him or her a leading professional.

Anne Watkinson (who's worked extensively with TAs for Essex LEA and for the Department for Education and Skills) digs deep into the TA's role as a member of the teaching team, supporting her analysis with case studies, advice on school policies and practical examples of what to do at classroom level. This is the essential book for any senior management team trying to work out a whole-school approach to including TAs, but it is also a source of advice on how to work with TAs in the classroom.

Making the Most of Teaching Assistants focuses on nuts and bolts, providing page after page of case studies, model policies, pro formas for appraisal: everything that a teacher in charge of TAs needs. There's also a CD-Rom with all the forms on it.

The arrival of theory texts for TA trainees emphasises the fact that the days of washing paintbrushes and pinning up displays are long gone.

Understanding Children's Learning is a collection of papers dealing with most aspects of children's development, learning and behaviour. Though they never patronise, the authors are clearly determined to get to the point, take little for granted, and keep away from jargon ("Now we turn to Vygotsky, who was a Russian psychologistI").

Susan Bentham's A Teaching Assistant's Guide to Child Development and Psychology in the Classroom tells us more about Vygotsky ("a Russian theorist who wrote on education, sociology, art, history and philosophy"), but keeps its feet firmly in the classroom, illustrating explanations of learning styles and strategies with lots of mini case studies.

Whether the four authors of Becoming a Teaching Assistant have managed quite so well to balance clarity with respect for the maturity of their audience is for the reader to judge. Their opening chapter begins: "You are probably entering or deciding whether to enter higher education, possibly for the first time. This can be a large step, and sometimes a decision that requires courage."

Still, it's a book founded in considerable experience, which differs from the previous two by tackling the higher education experience itself: how to keep organised, do the work, balance life and learning, take notes, write essays, develop a portfolio. Such advice is always valuable for people returning to learning at whatever level.

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