Who's been teaching in my class?

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Teaching assistants are supporters,not spies, says Elizabeth Holmes. It's a relationship worth working on.

You may have disliked having another adult in your classroom to scrutinise your lessons during training, but working with a support teacher is a very different experience.

Most teachers would rather teach a class of children (however challenging) than even a small group of their adult peers. Yet depending on the location of your school and the nature of its population you may find yourself with anything up to three or four support teachers in the lessons you teach. They could be individual support for pupils with special educational needs, EMAG (Ethic Minorities Achievement Grant) teachers, paid classroom assistants or parent volunteers.

If that sounds threatening, think of the advantages. As well as the added impact that classroom support teachers can have on learning outcomes (making it possible for more children to receive individual attention), they may also inspire you to think about your lessons from the perspectives of other adults.

Support teachers can also help you mark your progress through your first year in a way that your mentor cannot, because they will be witnessing your work daily or weekly for the full length of a lesson. They will see how your relationships with the pupils develop and how effectively you relax into your job in ordinary, "unobserved" circumstances.

Newly qualified teacher Emma Pescott, who teaches English at Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets, has support in more than 80 per cent of her lessons. She sees these potential benefits of classroom support as invaluable. "Knowing that there are other agencies involved in my lessons ensures that I think carefully about the way I respond to situations. This can only be beneficial because although I do have autonomy, I work in conjunction with the other adults. Now, I couldn't do without them."

Pupils respond positively to seeing their teachers and supporters interacting, even team-teaching. Their sense of being "provided for" is enhanced and disruption can be minimised.

Where there are behaviour problems, support teachers can offer invaluable information. That could prove to be inside knowledge worth its weight in gold. Emma Pescott says: "My advice to new teachers would be to use the expertise of those supporting you. Often they will know the pupils better than you (certainly at first) and they can offer well-needed perspectives on individuals, especially how they respond to other teachers."

But classroom support can have a negative side if there is a culture of suspicion in your school. You could feel watched or judged, in which case, your development will be hampered.

How can you ensure that working with your support in the classroom is constructive and positive?

The foundation of success in any job is the formation of strong working relationships and these must be invested in continually. Spend time at the start of the school year with each classroom supporter you have, to establish how the relationship should work. Aim to fall into a natural rhythm so that lessons go smoothly.

Collaborative planning may be appropriate with some of your supporters and will certainly help you to focus on why you (or a pupil) have been given the help, but remember that you are still the manager of all the class activities.

It can only work effectively if you present a united front to pupils, so your ideas on discipline and rewards and your general expectations must be explicit.

Imagine you are the classroom assistant, and imagine working with you.What image is conjured in your mind? Do you know what you are doing and why? Do you know where the work is coming from and where it is going to?

Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations says: "Anyone supporting a teacher needs to know exactly where they fit into the overall plan. This is why communication and liaison are so important. All adults in the classroom must understand what it is the teacher intends to teach and how the lesson will be delivered."

Most people thrive on at least an element of autonomy. If you develop such a culture, you will minimise the chances of helpers becoming hindrances.

But remember, only you can perform certain work such as reporting and assessment, although discussing pupils with the support assistant may help.

FULL SUPPORT

* Know exactly who will attend each lesson and why.

* Explain to your support teachers any rules you have for your pupils and why.

* Make sure volunteer assistants are familiar with health and safety and child protection issues, and the need for confidentiality. Paid support teachers should have had some induction.

* Agree to present a united front to the pupils. Time spent on building strong relationships will be well rewarded.

* Discuss in advance your policies on rewards and sanctions. Remember that as the teacher, you remain in charge - even if your classroom support is your head of department.

* Give your classroom supporters feedback or allow for discussions on how well you both feel the relationship is working.

* Brief your supporters, in advance if possible, so they don't haveto ask a lot of questions (or worse, bluff) during the lesson.

* Prepare some written information about your lessons and classes for helpers, especially if they are parent volunteers.

* Don't waste your supporters, especially parent volunteers. Give them tasks of value.

* Get to know any specialist skills assistants may have.

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