The relationship between teachers and teaching assistants is a changing one. Angela Youngman investigates and offers guidance to ensure effectiveness

Teaching assistants can provide valuable help to hard-pressed teachers – if only they are used properly. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Young, inexperienced teachers can find it difficult organising other adults within the classroom especially while they are trying to find their feet in their first job. After all, the teaching assistant will probably know more about the class than they do! While some teachers who have been around for longer regard the teaching assistant as just a pair of hands to do the dogsbody work or help out a particular child.

The numbers of teaching assistants has been rising steadily. Over the past decade numbers have grown from 136,500 to 287,500. Within this figure are 13,741 higher-level training assistants (HLTAs) with a further 3,001 currently undergoing training to become HLTAs.

TAs: what are the issues?

Although teaching assistants have been used in schools for many years, there are still some problems and concerns, which exist both on the part of teaching assistants and the teachers they are working with.

A lot of teaching assistants have limited formal training and qualifications compared to teachers who are now almost exclusively graduates. Often the public perception of teaching assistants is that of cheap, poorly trained staff replacing the role of professional, higher-paid teachers. An NOP survey commissioned by the Training and Development Agency revealed that more than one in three parents are unaware of the role played by teaching assistants.

Teaching assistants have much lower salaries than teachers. The rates of pay can deter good candidates coming forward who may be suitable for training to higher-level status.

Lack of confidence by newly qualified teachers
Newly qualified teachers feel underprepared to work with teaching assistants regarding them as a potential threat to the teacher’s professional identity. A study by Linda Fursland at Bath Spa University revealed that few newly qualified teachers felt they had enough training in order to know how to work with teaching assistants.

The NOP survey revealed that there is a greater incidence of assaults by children in which teaching assistants are the targets. It seems that teaching assistants are more at risk because they are working alongside children rather than standing at the front like teachers. A particular problem with violence exists in pupil referral units, which tend to have high numbers of teaching assistants.

Organising the work of teaching assistants within the school
A key element that every headteacher should look at closely is exactly how they are organising the work of teaching assistants within the school. Generally it falls into one of two types:

A teaching assistant is allotted to one child, class or teacher for the entire week.
A teaching assistant moves around the school. One teacher may work with several different teaching assistants in the course of one day, depending on the needs of their children.

Both models can cause problems. If a teaching assistant is working only with one child or teacher on a permanent basis, they are not using their skills fully nor are they getting enough variety to make the job interesting. While if they are moving around the school too quickly they may find it hard to develop relationships, develop their skills and knowledge or provide focused help when necessary.

Helena Gillespie, lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia recognises the problem. She recommends that the best way is to create a mixture of the two approaches; providing some focused activity and some general movement. Even though the teaching assistant may be employed primarily to respond to the requirements of a child with special needs, there will be times when the child does not need individual help. Surveying the workload throughout a week will identify those times when the teaching assistant can be used elsewhere. This way the teaching assistant, the class teacher and the child get the advantage of individually focused attention when needed and also the variety and personal development that comes from working in different parts of the school.

Consider the times when a teaching assistant is employed

Most teaching assistants are employed between 9am and 3pm. But is this the most appropriate time? Would their help be better used at the beginning or end of the school day?

If employed with timings that overlap the beginning or ending of the school day the teaching assistant would be available to meet with the class teacher. This would enable teachers to discuss work requirements during the day without having to interrupt their classroom teaching. This allows time for the teacher and teaching assistant to build their own professional relationship – identifying and discussing classroom issues, as well as giving time for any preparation that may be necessary. By giving the teaching assistant time to prepare, it helps give them a sense of value, that their work is appreciated and useful within the school community.

Teachers’ expectations

Ensure that teachers know exactly what they want the teaching assistants to do. Even if there is not much time to discuss work requirements, a short written note explaining exactly what the aim of the lesson is, what the learning objectives are and what the teaching assistant will be required to do will clarify matters. There should be some space on the note for the teaching assistant to make their own comments on what they have observed during the class, or any problems they may have encountered. Such feedback can help class assessment and ensure that similar problems are avoided in other lessons. It is a way of taking advantage of that extra pair of hands and eyes that may see things the classroom teacher may miss while helping another group.

Play on strengths

Some teaching assistants are good at display, others are talented in creative or artistic work. If these talents can be identified and utilised within the school, it will ensure that the teaching assistant gains variety and interest in their job, making them feel more valued. It will also work to the benefit of the children being taught, as they will gain from the enthusiasm and specialist knowledge of the teaching assistant.

Relationship with teacher

This is crucial. A good working relationship can make all the difference to harmony within the classroom and make the most of the extra pair of hands that a teaching assistant provides. Headteachers need to ensure that all staff are aware of the full range of tasks that any specific teaching assistant can undertake, and encourage teachers to maximise use of the teaching assistant.

As with any relationship, problems can develop! There may have been problems within the classroom and the teaching assistant may feel that their authority has not been upheld. The teacher may feel themselves under threat from someone who has been in the classroom for a much longer period and knows the children better.

Such situations need to be identified and dealt with rapidly before the situation has time to escalate. According to Helena Gillespie, the potential problems in the professional relationship between teacher and teaching assistant are one of the key concerns expressed by trainee teachers. Her remedy is to get the two parties to talk to each other. Teacher and teaching assistant should sit down and talk about some issue within the classroom – perhaps discipline, a particular child or a teaching issue rather than the deteriorating relationship. This focuses the attention of both parties on the welfare of the children, and the task in hand – which both are keen to develop.

A new teacher should be prepared to ask the teaching assistant what they know about the children. After that they should focus on making their own judgements, rather than relying on the teaching assistant’s judgements.

By asking teaching assistants for their feedback after lessons or for their information about a child, the teaching assistant is being shown that they are valued.

New teachers can also help their relationship with the teaching assistant by occasionally showing they are willing to do all the jobs around the classroom or school. Volunteering to do extra playground duty, tidying shelves and bookcases shows that they can do these tasks and are not just expecting someone else to do everything.

Identify specific skills

Many teaching assistants will have specific skills or interests that they can bring to the classroom. They can be encouraged to use those interests for the benefit of the school community perhaps by doing a lunchtime session or taking small groups throughout the day.

Some teaching assistants have good skills with young children or are good at organising displays. They may be good at organising visits. HLTAs in particular can be given specific positions such as English as an additional language co-coordinator. By identifying these skills, the headteacher can make use of them for the benefit of the children within the school.

Many different roles

A look at the roles undertaken by some teaching assistants reveals the vast range of tasks they can successfully undertake.

The inaugural teaching assistant of the year, Jim Herbert, at Little Ilford School in north-east London visits parents to talk about problems with struggling children, and has helped improve the school’s image by encouraging pupils who had previously been responsible for graffiti to repaint the staffroom windows. His official job title is deputy pastoral achievement leader.

Another example is that of Chris Croucher, of Woodlands Primary School on the Wirral. Originally trained as a nurse, she moved into education when she became a single parent and needed work to fit into family life. Initially she began working as a welfare assistant looking after specific children with special needs. She subsequently trained as a learning support assistant and has gained HLTA status.

Chris now takes on a key parent liaison role and with the help of bilingual classroom assistants has established good relationships with parents and supports them. She is also the EAL (English as an additional language) co-coordinator. She comments: ‘As an HLTA you have to realise you are not going into a classroom to babysit; you are going in to play an involved role in learning activities and even deliver parts of a class. Obviously I am not a teacher, but I do have a great deal of experience and the staff, pupils and parents have confidence in my ability to conduct parts of a class.’

Angela Youngman is a teacher and freelance writer