Working with teaching assistants - Make the most of your support

15th May 2009 at 01:00
When you're relatively new to a class, your assistant can seem like the expert. Don't be intimidated; work together and manage this partnership

For Laura McGowan, a primary supply teacher in south London, her teaching experience at a school is largely shaped by the teaching assistant. "Often I'm coming into a class for the first time and I'm almost fully reliant on the teaching assistant," she says. "It can be anything from knowing what the pupils' strengths and weaknesses are in maths, to knowing where equipment is."

The relationship with your teaching assistant is one of the most important partnerships a teacher can have and you will spend more time with them than with any other teacher in the school. It has to be a teacher-led partnership, however, and as a newly qualified teacher it can be difficult to assert your way of doing things when the assistant may be older and more experienced.

"We spend a lot of time talking about how to manage teaching assistants," says Nadine Baker, head of primary and early years education at Edge Hill University. "It comes down to being able to build professional relationships. You need to take time to invest in it and include them in everything you do."

The teaching assistant may have had more experience with the children and the curriculum, but this doesn't need to be a threat to your skills and should be an advantage. "There should be an element of teamwork and if you are creative about how you communicate, you can play to everybody's strengths," says Mrs Baker.

Scheduling some discussion time with your TA is essential for you to let them know what you want. Gwynne Wilson-Brown, teacher trainer at the University of Greenwich and author of The Assertive Teacher, says that most of the TAs she trains feel they don't get enough guidance from teachers. "If the TA doesn't know what the teacher's going to do, they cannot do their role," she says. "The problem is that the TAs are paid to finish when the children finish, which leaves little time for planning."

If you have different methods of behaviour management, the teacher needs to assert authority but work with the TA to solve the problem. "Be in charge but not bossy," says Mrs Wilson-Brown. "One of the things you can do is buy a sheet of colour-coded stickers and ask the TA to give these to pupils who are behaving well or working well on task. This gives them a solution, rather than presenting a problem."

At the age of 23, Jennifer Day found it difficult to manage her three TAs when she started at Bure Park Primary School in Oxford. "I didn't tell them how old I was until my birthday and I think they were quite shocked," she says. "The youngest of them is 45 and they've got children my age."

The school has a system of rotation, where TAs are trained in one specific intervention (for example numeracy or literacy) and move between classes. Ms Day also manages an additional French teacher and someone who covers for her planning, preparation and assessment time.

"At the beginning, it was bizarre trying to get used to it. They had different behaviour management tactics: one wanted to make friends with the pupils and the other was more assertive and would shout," she says.

"It was becoming apparent to the louder teacher that I was a lot quieter. She joked that she could hear her own voice booming across the classroom, so we approached it from a jokey perspective. I built a good relationship with her so we could discuss it without it causing offence. I spoke to the deputy headteacher as well and we went on an Inset day for behaviour management."

Ms Day now has a file with dividers for each of the five adults in her classroom to refer to for their day's activities. This limits disruption when a new adult arrives and each person knows what they should be getting on with. "The odd box of chocolates also goes a long way towards oiling teacher relationships in my class," Ms Day says.

Things to think about

  • If you work with several teaching assistants, bear in mind they'll have different styles
  • Set aside some time to discuss how things are working
  • Make your instructions clear and specific to each teaching assistant's needs
  • Ensure they have access to resources such as reward stickers.

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