Some of the new titles for support staff have increased or caused confusion and mystery for teachers, parents and pupils

Teaching assistant, classroom assistant, HLTA, behaviour support assistant, parent helper, learning support assistant, are all (and there are more!) posts which have appeared in schools over the last few years. Referred to as TAs, LSAs, BSAs, the roles and perceived hierarchy in the classroom are often difficult to understand.

The concept and understanding of the assistant in the classroom can vary between the following two extremes: 1. An extra adult, there to prepare materials, put up displays, listen to readers or become ‘velcroed’ to a specific pupil identified as having special educational needs. 2. A highly skilled and well-qualified adult who forms an effective partnership working alongside the subject/class teacher. Thoughts and feelings are the drivers of behaviour. The teacher who feels uncertain or threatened by the presence of another adult in the classroom, will invariably underuse that person’s skills, fail to make an effective working relationship with the assistant, and confuse pupils. Pupils who are confused will test boundaries and exploit inconsistencies between staff members. Equally difficult is the classroom assistant appointed to the job following a reply to an advert in the local newspaper, who finds him/herself in the classroom with little or no induction, training or even an introduction to the teacher. For assistants working in secondary schools, this can be even more challenging and alarming. Linked to a pupil, experiencing difficulties in school, and faced with the prospect of trying to work with up to a dozen different teachers in a week, can be a daunting experience. It can challenge even the most self confident of people. As a newly appointed member of staff, many assistants would choose not to cause problems or upset relationships by asking for a clear and relevant job description and for planning/meeting time on the timetable. Consequently, many assistants (and teachers!) learn the role whilst actually doing it, often by trial and error.

Practical tips

Top of the list in order to clarify the role of Teaching Assistant in your classroom must be a job description. A generic job description and person specification for all support staff within the school should be available, and this can then be ‘individualised’ for the specific role the assistant will be undertaking. Communication must take place at all levels: a) Role within the school. b) Role within the classroom/faculty/subject area. c) Role with the group or individual pupil. Once these areas have been established, it is vital that time is formally set aside/timetabled for teacher and assistant to talk. Consider setting up a recording or reminder system that will compensate for all those busy times (text, email, message board or even an exercise book!). Has your TA been provided with anywhere to store their resources and possessions? Comfort zones contribute to that feel good factor and will most certainly impact on performance. Top of the priority list in your discussions between TA and teacher must be to confirm the ground rules and boundaries within the classroom. What are the reward and consequence systems? Who implements them? As mentioned previously, there is a real or perceived, adult hierarchy within the classroom and regular communication with agreed responsibilities will reduce confusion and tension. Depending on the working environment of the TA, it is important that he/she is familiar with the working practices of all the teachers involved. Where difficulties arise it is also important for the TA to have clarity regarding line management. Who do they speak to when things go wrong? Who is responsible for the TA’s professional development? The teacher and teaching assistant relationship, when working well, provides the pupils with a rich working environment. Behaviour in the classroom is managed by two adults, who seem to have an uncanny understanding of each other. Challenging situations can be calmed and resolved at the lowest level before they escalate. Just catching the eye of the teacher is sometimes enough to take the edge off the incident! Contact with more teachers means even more opportunities to skill share.

Perhaps it’s time for schools to include ‘Working with TAs’ as part of their INSET for teachers. Part of good practice in establishing an emotionally literate school is to involve all stakeholders in school development plans. Teachers, TAs and all support staff should be included in this process.

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This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2007

About the author: Dave Stott is the author of Behaviour Matters. He has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years at headteacher level. Dave has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a successful consultant and trainer.