Assistants can be a lifeline in special needs classrooms, you just need to know how to lead a team and get on with them, says Louisa Leaman.Those who are new to the special needs classroom may have prepared themselves for the challenges presented by the pupils, but what about the challenges of managing staff? Most special needs teachers will be responsible for a team of assistants, who will support pupils in their learning, behaviour or physical needs.
To the uninitiated, the idea of having a handful of teaching assistants supporting the teacher, with perhaps no more than 10 pupils in the class, may seem appealing. But what seems like a luxurious pupilstaff ratio is often the bare necessity, and can sometimes present a managerial monster.
At times, I have had to contend with arguments, romance, laziness,non-cooperation, moaning, silliness and stress. I have also encountered a number of assistants who, despite good intentions, seem to create more problems than they solve: minor disruptive behaviour escalating intofull-scale disaster, all due to the manner in which the staff member approached the pupil - and guess who has to pick up the pieces?
On the positive side, the knowledge and support that an experienced team of assistants can provide creates an invaluable backbone to classroom success. It is a dynamic that has an impact on everything: from atmosphere to efficiency, from staff stress levels to pupil behaviour. So what does an effective teaching team look like? And how can it be achieved?
On the surface, it involves a calm, happy atmosphere, and motivated staff who understand their roles and support one another. I believe it is perfectly possible to lead a team and get on with them at the same time. In fact, a shared sense of humour is often the tonic that makes such demanding work seem tolerable.
Effective communication is another ingredient. A team needs regular opportunities to sit down together and discuss what is happening. They also need to feel they are able to raise concerns freely.
People like to feel valued. Individuals in the team may have additional skills to bring to the pot, such as artistic ability, a caring manner, or ruthless organisational habits. If they are encouraged to make use of their strengths, this will have a practical benefit to the functioning of the classroom and will hopefully increase job satisfaction. If the worst comes to the worst there is always the morale-boosting doughnut.
Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School in Enfield, Middlesex Next week: managing challenging behaviour.