NQT Special: Working with teaching assistants

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
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What is the secret to fostering a successful working relationship with the teaching assistants who you will undoubtedly be working with in your classroom? Matt Bromley offers his 4Cs

During your teacher training you probably felt like an itinerant, moving from classroom to classroom, and possibly from school to school, as you gained valuable experience by observing lessons, team-teaching with seasoned colleagues and being observed and coached by a mentor.

You may have felt torn between planning, teaching and evaluating your lessons while on placement, and completing course assignments for your teacher trainers.

Being an NQT is, in my experience, easier because there are fewer conflicting demands on your time and attention. You now have but one focus: to teach. You can get to know your school and your classroom, and you can develop long-term relationships with staff and pupils alike.

The fact your pupils know you are sticking around also means they are more likely to behave and work for you – simply put, they know there’s no hiding place and you can follow through on any sanctions. It is in their interests as well as yours that you get on and work well together.

As an NQT, you can now set about turning your classroom into your kingdom – it is your domain and you are responsible for building a positive learning environment and an inspiring physical space. You want your pupils to know that as soon as they walk through the door they are on your turf and must follow your rules. Sometimes, however, you will find yourself sharing your turf with another adult, such as a teaching assistant or specialist support teacher. How well you and they manage that relationship is crucial if you are to retain your authority and if you are to become a successful teacher.

So, what is the secret to fostering a successful working relationship with other adults in your classroom? I have developed the 4Cs to help: Consistency, Communication, Clarity, and Connections.

Consistency

Although it may sound authoritarian and undemocratic, you must remember that it is your classroom and you are in control of it. Of course, in most cases you and your teaching assistant will get on well, have the same high standards and be aligned in your determination that all pupils succeed.

But, if there are differences, you will need to make clear to the other adult that you expect them to follow your lead when it comes to supporting learning and managing behaviour.

As everyone knows, a child will ask one adult and if they don’t get the answer they want they will go to another adult and ask the same question, hoping for a different answer. Children are good at “divide and conquer” tactics and will employ them in your classroom if they think they can get a cigarette paper between you and your teaching assistant. If your teaching assistant is more lenient than you, your authority will be undermined and “But they let me do it” will become a familiar refrain.

Consistency doesn’t happen by accident: you must cultivate it by being explicit with other adults in your room about what you expect and about what sanctions apply to those pupils who do not meet those expectations. Often, these will be set out in the whole-school behaviour policy and known to everyone, but sometimes you will – by necessity or desire – have your own rules or ways for managing behaviour and it is important that you articulate this to other adults. While your room is your domain, it is also your responsibility – not the teaching assistant’s – to make your expectations clear.

As well as being consistent in the way behaviour is managed, you must also be consistent in the ways in which you support pupils with their learning. For example, if you expect pupils to struggle independently with challenges before seeking support, perhaps using the “3b4me” approach (whereby pupils must consult first their brain, their book and then a buddy before asking you for help), then your teaching assistant must also do this. If the teaching assistant proffers answers on first asking, they will undermine your attempts to develop independent learning. As before, it is always your responsibility to articulate your ways of working with your teaching assistant and to reinforce these through your words and actions.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) proposes a hierarchy of teaching assistant activities that promote pupils’ autonomy and independence (based on the work of Bosanquet, Radford & Webster, 2016). Its Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests that teaching assistants start with self-scaffolding, which involves the greatest level of pupil independence, then move on to prompting if pupils require more help, followed by clueing, modelling and then correcting.

  • Self-scaffolding: Teaching assistants observe, giving pupils time for processing and thinking. Self-scaffolders can: plan how to approach a task, problem-solve as they go and review how they approached a task.
  • Prompting: Teaching assistants provide prompts when pupils are unable to self-scaffold. Prompts encourage pupils to draw on their own knowledge, but refrain from specifying a strategy. The aim is to nudge pupils into deploying a self-scaffolding technique. For example: “What do you need to do first? What’s your plan? You can do this!”
  • Clueing: Often pupils know the strategies or knowledge required to solve a problem, but find it difficult to call them to mind. Clues worded as questions provide a hint in the right direction. The answer must contain a key piece of information to help pupils work out how to move forward. Always start with a small clue.
  • Modelling: Prompts and clues can be ineffective when pupils encounter a task that requires a new skill or strategy. Teaching assistants, as confident and competent experts, can model while pupils actively watch and listen. Pupils should try the same step for themselves immediately afterwards.
  • Correcting: This involves providing answers and requires no independent thinking. Occasionally it is appropriate to do this, however, teaching assistants should always aim instead to model and encourage pupils to apply new skills or knowledge first.

Communication

You must ensure that you regularly communicate with your teaching assistant about the lesson content. For example, it is important – if the teaching assistant is to be an effective additional resource in your room – that they know what the learning objectives are, what pupils will be expected to do, and how they will demonstrate their learning by the end of the lesson.

It is important, too, that teaching assistants know what excellence looks like – what the intended outcomes are and how to attain highly. Communication must be frequent and formal. In other words, it must not be left to a chance meeting in the staffroom or corridor; rather, you must carve out a regular slot on the timetable when you can both meet and run through your scheme of work. If your teaching assistant doesn’t know what the learning objectives are and what pupils are expected to achieve, then how can they possibly be expected to help?

As a rule of thumb, it is useful if you communicate the following to your teaching assistant before each lesson or sequence of lessons:

  • The learning objectives and intended outcomes (what success will look like at the end of the lesson/s and why it matters in terms of the bigger picture).
  • The key concepts, knowledge and skills being taught (what pupils need to know and do by the end of the lesson/s).
  • The skills and behaviours – including learning behaviours such as metacognition and self-regulation – to be learned, applied, practised or expanded upon during the lesson/s.
  • The ways in which pupils’ progress will be assessed and the ways in which feedback will be given and acted upon in the lesson/s.

Clarity

As well as communicating the learning objectives and intended outcomes, you must also make clear what role you want the teaching assistant to play in the lesson.

Often teaching assistants are used as an informal teaching resource for lower-performing pupils or pupils with SEN. However, this approach has been proven to be ineffective – not least by the EEF.

Instead, teaching assistants should be used to add value to what teachers do rather than replace the teacher. Although it is common practice, and has gone unquestioned for so long, it now seems obvious that if teaching assistants work with a lower-performing pupil while the teacher teaches the rest of the class, then those pupils most in need of quality teaching miss out and the disadvantage gap widens. If your teaching assistant does have an instructional role to play in your classroom, then it is important that they supplement, rather than replace, you.

To be clear, the expectation should be that the needs of all pupils are addressed, first and foremost, through “quality first teaching” from you – every pupil should have equal access to your expertise. As such, you should try and organise your classroom so that the pupils who struggle most have as much time with you as all the others.

Where your teaching assistant is working individually with lower-performing pupils, the focus should be on retaining access to quality first teaching from you, with the teaching assistant delivering brief, but intensive, structured interventions. Sometimes, it might be that you work with lower-performing pupils and those in most need while the teaching assistant supports the rest of the class.

Whether the teaching assistant is working with individual pupils or small groups, or with the majority of the class, their role is to help move the learning forward and support pupils to become independent learners. This might involve them:

  • Remodelling or re-explaining.
  • Scribing for the teacher (on the board) or a pupil.
  • Reinforcing instructions and checking understanding.
  • Helping pupils to use equipment or resources.
  • Encouraging discussion and participation.
  • Questioning pupils to challenge them.
  • Assessing pupils’ learning through observation, questioning and discussion, and checking and clarifying misconceptions.
  • Helping to make links between learning in the lesson and other contexts.
  • Supporting pupils to identify their next steps in learning and what they need to do to achieve them.

Connections

If teaching assistants or other adults teach your pupils in your subject by means of additional interventions such as one-to-one or small group withdrawal sessions, it is important that you work with them to make explicit connections between learning from your everyday classroom teaching and these structured interventions.

Interventions are often quite separate from classroom activities and yet interventions only work if learning in these sessions is consistent with, and extends, work inside the classroom and that pupils understand the links between them. It should not be assumed that pupils can consistently identify and make sense of these links on their own. This involves regular communication between you and your teaching assistant, both before and after each lesson or intervention session.

Conclusion

You may find the following questions useful when reflecting on how you work with your teaching assistant:

  • How much direction do you provide to the teaching assistant when they are in your lesson? Do you establish clear expectations right from the start?
  • How do you ensure the teaching assistant knows exactly what you want them to be doing when they are working with a pupil/group of pupils?
  • Does the teaching assistant always work with the pupils with SEN? If so, could they work with a different group or oversee the rest of the class while you focus on the pupils with additional needs?
  • If the teaching assistant is working with an SEN pupil, do they encourage them to be independent by providing initial input then moving away from them?
  • How do you gather feedback about the pupils’ progress from the teaching assistant at the end of a lesson?


  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with 18 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. For Matt’s archive of best practice articles for SecEd, visit http://bit.ly/1Uobmsl

NQT Special Edition: Free download

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NQT Special Edition – eight pages of best practice advice aimed at NQTs and trainee teachers as they come to the end of their first term. All eight pages, published in November 2018, can be downloaded as a free pdf via http://bit.ly/2FGrF77


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