Leaders and helpers

25th August 2000 at 01:00
As a new wave of teaching assistants enters schools Sue Palmer argues that, valuable though they are, they are not teachers.

WHAT exactly is "teaching"? As large numbers of "teaching assistants" move into roles that were once the province of a teacher, this is a question that has become more than philosophical. Indeed, I believe it's now positively pressing and, for the sake of our profession, we should get it sorted out pretty quickly.

Jim Rose, former director of inspection at the Office for Standards in Education, and currently leading the new government training programme for teaching assistants (TAs) , is in no doubt about what "teaching" means. "If it looks like teaching, sounds like teaching and feels like teaching, it probably is teaching," he claims. "TAs are already actually teaching and it's empty rhetoric to pretend they're not."

Well, up to a point .... I can see that teaching is an activity we all engage in: parents teach their children to eat with a knife and fork; piano teachers teach their pupils to play Fur Elise; infants at play teach each other the rules of Grandmother's Footsteps.

Nobody can argue that the word covers a multitude of different activities, and an unqualified person delivering a scripted lesson to a group of children could, in these terms, be said to be teaching them.

But in a school "teaching" has a somewhat different gloss. In every classroom there is a person known as "the teacher" whose profession - for which he or she trained for several years - is "teaching". The job that person does involves much more than the mere transmission of information. If you compare what I, as an ex-primary teacher, call "teaching" with the work carried out by a teaching assistant, there is a lot more than rhetoric at stake.

The profession of teaching involves above all the shouldering of responsibility. A primary teacher is responsible for a year in the life and development of 30 or so children. He or she must acquire encyclopaedic knowledge of the children - their strengths, weaknesses, fads and foibles - and the requirements of the curriculum for that age group - a range of 10 subjects, but particularly the essential life skills of literacy and numeracy. The teacher is then responsible for selecting resources and strategies to bring children and curriculum together. It is a massive responsibility, involving huge commitment.

From this point of view, teaching involves a lot more than transmitting a chunk of knowledge to an individual or group - no matter how successfully or creatively the TA interprets that brief. In fact, the assistant is merely one element in a classroom teacher's battery of resources - a very valuable resource, and one I wish had had when I was in the classroom - but nevertheless a resource. Indeed, today's teacher has to shoulder the further responsibility of managing that resource - setting and checking work for the assistant, ensuring that all goes smoothly, making maximum use of another pair of ands and eyes. To call the assistant's work "teaching" seems to me to diminish the role of the teacher and the significance of the profession as a whole.

As a contributor to recent government initiatives for introducing TAs into primary schools (including Jim Rose's national induction course), I'm all in favour of additional adults in the classroom. I've met some cracking TAs, who contribute hugely to the success of their schools, and are greatly valued by the teachers they work with. But it's increasingly apparent - for professionalism's sake if nothing else - that we need to be very clear about what exactly it is they're doing in the classroom.

Diana Nottingham, a headteacher in Hampshire who's been involved in a school-based analysis of the role of teaching assistants, has described the ideal relationship between teacher and assistant as "a complementary partnership".

As a full-time writer and in-service training provider, I have a PA to run my office and organise my travel and accounts. Ours is truly a complementary partnership - but she couldn't (and wouldn't want to) do my job. In the evening, she goes home with no worries about the future of the business on her mind, secure in the knowledge that she'll be paid this week, and recognising that questions like where the next commission comes from are my responsibility. Neither of us would want it otherwise.

Pie Corbett, who was English inspector in Gloucestershire last year when the additional literacy support (ALS) materials were introduced (scripted lessons for teaching assistants to deliver to failing readers), has told me that a number of qualified teachers signed on as ALS assistants.

They wanted the luxury of working closely with a group of children without the responsibilities of actually teaching. "They knew it was a completely different role," he says, "and that, no matter how much it looked and felt like teaching, they weren't employed as teachers. In fact, they'd chosen not to be employed as teachers because for one reason or another they didn't want the responsibility at that time."

So when Jim Rose writes that "No one seriously believes that it is only trained teachers who are capable of teaching, even within the confines of the school," I'm back into the "Well, erm..." routine. Because it depends what you mean by "teaching". In a brave new world of spin, we have to watch these words, and what they mean, and what that meaning might possibly entail in the future. With that in mind, I believe we should hold fast to the simple understanding that "teachers teach" and "assistants assist". Anything else spells trouble.

Sue Palmer is an independent writer and in-service provider who has contributed to the ALS and TA induction programmes. Her article, "Be a Dynamic Due - get the best from your helper" appears in this month's TES Primary magazine, on sale at newsagents, price pound;2.

Christine Whatford's article on LEAs' future will be published in The TES next month.

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