Help is at hand

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Teaching assistants can make your working life that little bit easier, so make the most of them, writes Jackie Seiber

You've worked hard and completed your degree. You've spent weeks planning for your initial encounter with your new class. Your first day arrives and the pupils burst into the classroom with your teaching assistant.

It's at this point that you might feel as if something has been left out of your training. You have been shown how to manage children, but what about being a line manager to an adult?

Of course, it's not so bad if you have already experienced working with an assistant during your training. But if this is not the case, it must be a daunting prospect to have another adult in the classroom. As with any new working relationship, time has to be spent getting to know one another.

There are many factors that can affect this situation; length of time the assistant has been in the school, how experienced she is, willingness to adapt to working with someone new, age difference and so on.

A classroom situation in which the assistant is older than the teacher may feel uncomfortable at first, when you consider that the younger person is the manager. Some teachers feel that an older, more experienced assistant is waiting for them to make mistakes, and this can be unsettling. But remember, most are not like this. They will try to do everything they can to support you and make you feel at ease. Unfortunately, there may be a few who will be sitting in the classroom thinking they could make a much better job of it. But remember that you are the one with the years of training under your belt, so be confident and positive in your approach.

There was a case of a new teacher arriving at a school on her first day.

She told the headteacher she did not need an assistant in the classroom.

But within two weeks, she realised her mistake and asked for help. She got over the initial awkwardness of having someone else in class and now she enjoys it.

The key word is communication. Five minutes at the beginning of the day will help the lessons run smoothly. There is nothing worse than not knowing what is expected of you. The same applies to classroom discipline. Let your assistant know your views on how you prefer to handle the issue. If she is experienced she will have worked with several teachers, all of whom have different ways of dealing with discipline. It helps to have two pairs of eyes in the classroom. If your assistant has been at the school for a few years, she will know the internal organisation of the school and will often know the parents and family situations of the children in the class. This knowledge can be useful to new teachers in helping them to decide how to handle any difficult or sensitive issues.

See teaching assistants as an additional source of ideas. They have usually built up a large database of information. You know the exasperation you feel when you've tried every way you can think of to explain a new concept and the result has still been a row of blank faces.

Don't tear your hair out or bang your head against the nearest wall. See if your assistant can suggest any ideas. It's all about teamwork.

It is becoming more common for teaching assistants to cover for teachers in some schools. If it happens in your school, it's essential to establish a good working relationship so that continuity can be maintained.

Another inevitable part of working in a classroom is stress. The best remedy is a sense of humour. Children love to hear banter between the adults and it creates a relaxed atmosphere.

Teachers' administrative tasks are constantly growing. It really does need two people to tackle it, so think teamwork. And sometimes a teacher will ask for something to be done and not allocate the time to do it. You can avoid this by having a set time of day when these tasks should be carried out.

Be sure to take time in the first few weeks to establish a good working relationship with your assistant. It can be very rewarding and well worth the effort.

Jackie Seiber is a teaching assistant in Medway, Kent

DO

* Take time to communicate. Even five minutes at the beginning of the day discussing lesson plans can make a great deal of difference to what's achieved.

* Trust your teaching assistant. We're all human and cannot be A* in every subject. Successfully combining the skills of a teacher and an assistant in different areas results in a real partnership and team effort.

* Discuss your views on classroom organisation and discipline so that you and your assistant are working towards the same goals.

* Ask your teaching assistant for opinions and suggestions. An experienced assistant will be able to contribute ideas. There are times when you'll have tried every way you know how to explain a concept and the children have still not understood. Your assistant's past experience may help.

* Discuss problem areas before they become a major issue. There is nothing worse than a bad atmosphere in the classroom.

* Respect assistants as professionals working alongside you, not for you.

Acknowledge any volunary hours that your assistant does. You'd be surprised at how many spend extra time in the classroom. They don't necessarily get extra pay, so a 'thank you' will always be appreciated.

DON'T

* Feel intimidated by having another adult in the classroom with you.

Teaching assistants are there to assist you, not to criticise you.

lTake offence if a teaching assistant suggests a different idea. They may have learnt from experience that a certain way of doing something doesn't work. It is certainly not a reflection on your ability.

* Feel embarrassed if you make a mistake in the classroom. It's far better to make a joke of it. Children like to know that teachers aren't perfect.

After all, we all have our off-days .

* Worry if you have days when you feel stressed. Often, having a chat with your assistant is a very effective way of putting things back into perspective.

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