How can you make judgements about the performance of your assistants when they are in the room working alongside a teacher/ practitioner? Kevin Bullock provides one solution

Whichever member of your staff team you are about to observe, it is important that all observations are made against the criteria that you have set for that person to apply as they carry out their role. Starting from a person’s job description you can compile a list of the skills and attitudes they should be displaying as they carry out their role. Let us take the person who is assisting a teacher or other professional practitioner as s/he carries out her role. How can you assess someone who is assisting another professional?

The observation form

Begin by making a list of the key skills and attitudes you might want to see in someone carrying out this role. You can the examples in the attached pdf as they are, or adapt them to your own setting’s requirements. By the addition of a simple 1-5 grading we have turned our list into a useful observation checklist. Click here for the attachement.

Following the usual good practice of discussing beforehand what you will be looking for, making objective observations and feeding back in a constructive manner, you can use this sheet as part of your performance management programme.

Don’t try to observe everything at once!

The notes

The notes which follow can be used during the induction process to discuss your requirements with the assistant, and they can form the basis of their job description. These key skills and attitudes can then be monitored, using this simple grading system. Feedback will refer back to these original notes. Make a copy for the assistant to keep to go alongside their job description and to use as a discussion guide during performance management or appraisal interviews.

Communication

Communication is more than the sum total of spoken words. In fact studies have suggested that non-verbal expression plays a major role in human communication.   Similarly the tone of the voice will often overshadow the actual words being spoken. In short, never underestimate the role of body language and voice tone when communicating to the children in your care.

Having emphasised the above, it is still vital to select spoken vocabulary that the children in your care are familiar with and always plan carefully when and how you introduce new vocabulary.

Try to gauge the volume of your voice: too soft and children can’t hear, whereas you may distract pupils from beyond your group if your voice is too loud. Sometimes teachers are hesitant to approach their assistants on such a personal issue about being too loud, so awareness of voice level is crucial.

How many times has someone given you too much information too quickly and left you uncertain and confused? It goes without saying; it is much easier to confuse a young child with too much detail. Keep your instructions/guidance simple and within the context of their learning.
We have all sat through boring monotone lessons/ lectures in our time. Effective communication should motivate and inspire, it is about human engaging and connecting emotionally as well as on an intellectual level. An assistant that purposely incorporates facial expression and controlled animation will certainly bring life to the most down-to-earth content.

Body language alone can encourage or discourage a child in your care and influence behaviour. A stern look with folded arms will bring about a different response to relaxed and open body language accompanied by a smile. There are times when both the latter and the former may be appropriate.

Clarity

So many poor lessons are as a result of unclear objectives. Always be sure of what your expected outcomes should be. If in doubt, check with your teacher. Similarly, always be sure about your specific role within the whole lesson. Inspectors often downgrade lessons because of lack of clarity/understanding between the teacher and class assistant. You should always discuss behaviour management with your teacher so there is consistency regarding sanctions and rewards for the whole class. Children quickly catch on to inconsistencies in practice and unfairness. This can demotivate and/or have a negative effect on pupil behaviour.

It is helpful to the teacher if assistants scan the whole class from time to time ensure appropriate behaviour throughout the classroom. A stern look and/or a quiet word may be all that is needed to keep other children from beyond your group in check.  Talk to your teacher about your role in scanning the class, it may not be appropriate in the context in which you work.

Teaching/learning

The three key ways in which we learn are through seeing, hearing and doing: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic stimulus. Most educators believe that the most effective learning takes place when all three elements are present within a teaching/learning experience. Similarly, some children have a stronger learning bias towards just one of the above elements, so being aware of individual learning styles can enable you to plan your teaching more effectively to cater for the differing styles of learning.

Awareness of learning styles and being flexible in your teaching/presentations can enable pupils to learn and engage more effectively leading to higher motivated and more confident children. It is one thing catering for differing learning styles but another to ensure expectations are appropriate.

A lesson that ticks all the boxes for excellence can still be a failing lesson if expectations are too low. Ask yourself constantly: In my lesson am I challenging all the children? If not, why not?

Even in a small group children will have had different experiences and different levels of knowledge. Therefore it may be necessary to differentiate the work. Sometimes differentiation tactics can be achieved through activities that vary in difficulty or simply through outcomes, ie the teacher’s expectations of what each completed piece of work should look like for each individual child. Whatever way differentiation is managed it will have an impact on the way you organise resources. Think it through very carefully.

Appropriate expectations, differentiation and catering for a variety of learning styles all start with sound planning and preparation. It is essential that the teacher and assistant work together on these prerequisites to effective teaching and learning. It is within that sound framework that you will feel more confident to use your own initiative by tweaking and/or modifying the learning experiences of your children.

Relationships

Pupils consistently believe that the most important qualities a teacher should possess are consistency in approach to behavioural management and fairness. This should be of no surprise because even as adults these are the traits we hope for in our line managers and bosses.

Children also put humour high on the list for desirable characteristics of teachers.  Humour can create a positive atmosphere, relieve tension and put children at ease. Used wisely, it adds another dimension to a learning situation.

Likewise, secure and safe environments also enhance children’s learning. Recent studies on the brain have shown that being fearful can block key learning pathways to the brain.

However, good group dynamics within effective surroundings (as discussed above) will not only produce powerful learning but also a stimulating and exciting environment in which to work.

Kevin Bullock is a headteacher and author of Improving Performance in Primary Schools: Easy-to-Use Proformas for Whole-School Improvement

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