Managing support staff can be a minefield. It's driven some teachers to resign. Janet Murray reports
Gary Hewitt is head of science at a comprehensive school in south-east London. He admits he finds managing support staff one of the most challenging areas of his job.
"I often feel as if I'm treading on eggshells," he says. "I manage a number of lab technicians who are very experienced and competent, but if I ask them to do anything that isn't on their job description or might require an extra 10 minutes at the end the school day, they can become very unco-operative. Managing them can be more exhausting than a roomful of children."
Clare Hannon, now in her second year of teaching, knows the problem too.
"If I need urgent photocopying or a letter typed for a school trip, I often have to grovel to the admin staff," says the geography teacher from Kent.
"They tut and sigh as if they are the only people in the school who have a heavy workload and as if their job is far more stressful than yours. Once I was held up at the start of a lesson and asked a learning support assistant if she would mind nipping out to photocopy the worksheets for me. She did it, but acted as if I'd insulted her professionalism by asking her to do such a menial task."
Teachers often find themselves floundering between two extremes: treating support staff like buddies and treating them with disdain. Confusion results, and teachers can feel undermined rather than supported. It's a problem that is likely to become more frequent as the number of classroom assistants in our schools increases.
Anne McCormick, an assistant director at the National College of School Leadership, knows it is hard to get the balance right. As a primary head, she had more assistants than teachers. "Support staff should be encouraged to take ownership and be confident in their roles and responsibilities, but still recognise the teacher's expertise," she says. "Open communication is usually the best way to create positive working relationships.
"Difficulties can still occur. Newly qualified teachers, for example, can feel intimidated and undermined by more experienced support staff.
"A frank discussion about roles and responsibilities that includes a reminder about the issue of accountability is sometimes necessary. Less experienced teachers may find it helpful to ask a more senior colleague to facilitate such a conversation."
Tom Lewis, head of services at the Teacher Support Network, says that early intervention can prevent fatal damage to these relationships. "If support staff are being openly obstructive or critical, it cannot be allowed to drift," he says. "Teachers have to assert their status as the professional.
"An informal discussion about roles and responsibilities may be enough to resolve the problem, but in some cases it is necessary to seek advice and possibly intervention from your line manager."
Of course, it is best if you can get everyone happily on board from the start and make sure support staff feel valued and understand what is expected of them.
Ms McCormick says: "My office manager became part of the school leadership team, which meant she was able to represent the variety of support staff in the school and raise their concerns at management meetings.
"Site agents and caretakers were also invited to weekly admin meetings.
Learning support assistants were organised into key stage teams and allocated time within the school day to plan with class teachers.
"I was particularly keen to provide time and training for our mid-day supervisors. After all, they practically take over the school while teaching staff are off duty at lunchtime, and they need the skills to do that effectively.
"They were invited to regular meetings, some delivered by external training providers. Some were sent on external courses such as how to teach children traditional games. That helped them to feel they were making a valuable contribution and boosted confidence."
Mr Lewis believes relationships can be particularly difficult for young teachers, who may feel intimidated by well-established support staff.
"As a new teacher, it's important to remember that you need to forge good working relationships with every member of staff - not just teachers," he says. "And experienced teachers can forget that support staff have an established reputation or status. They should invest time in getting to know support staff and the experience they have to offer."
The ideal of mutal respect is well worth striving for because the price of getting it wrong can be high. Liz Nicholls, a primary teacher, was undermined by a learning support assistant to the point at which she felt forced to resign.
"My teaching record was exemplary," she explains. "I consistently produced excellent Sats results and my lesson observations were also excellent. But as soon as this assistant was assigned to my class everything began to change "She'd worked as a classroom assistant at the school for many years and seemed to think that made her an expert on teaching. Then she had the cheek to tell the headteacher that she didn't think I'd be able to cope with the class I had been given that year.
"When I found out she'd been attached to my class again this year, I was devastated. In the end, my anxiety reached the point where it began to make me ill. I felt I had no other option than to resign and look for another job."
* Remember that teachers and school leaders who offer teaching assistants the chance to participate fully in school life and share their experiences are much more likely to form positive relationships with their support staff.
* Inviting learning support assistants to attend your planning meetings, for example, shows that you value their contribution. It also acts as a subtle reminder of your professional status and allows you to communicate your expectations.