Teaching assistants: Providing outstanding classroom support

Written by: Jill Morgan | Published:
Photo: iStock

The impact that teaching assistants can have in the classroom is widely acknowledged – but effective deployment and professional collaboration with the teacher is key. Co-author of a new book on outstanding classroom support, Jill Morgan, offers some advice

The work of teaching assistants and other support staff has received fairly persistent attention over the years, on both sides of the Atlantic, and news and best practice articles in SecEd have detailed the most recent research findings and recommendations relating to the work of teaching assistants.

There is also a growing number of books and websites providing advice to teachers and school leaders on how to work more effectively with support staff (see further information for a selection).

However, to date, many of the strategies often discussed when it comes to teaching assistants apply almost exclusively to primary school settings, where a teacher typically shares the same space with the same teaching assistant(s) for the greater part of the working week.

This set-up obviously allows for considerable flexibility in applying the types of recommendations which have been made: teachers finding time to plan and de-brief with their teaching assistants during the working day, developing a team approach to meeting individual student needs, organising for classroom observations, etc.

The situation is quite different in many secondary settings where the “Velcro” model for deploying classroom support is still all too common: Teaching assistants are assigned to individual students and therefore accompany those students to each of their lessons.

This model is problematic on several counts. Teaching assistants express their frustration (and anxiety) about being expected to support a student across a wide range of subjects (what do I know about year 11 maths?), as well as the difficulties they face as they enter the classroom “cold” – not knowing what material will be covered that day.

They can find themselves in these types of situations day-after-day, week-after-week; it really is the norm rather than the exception as their work is conducted in relative isolation, albeit in the same physical space as the teacher and the rest of the class. And perhaps the more worrying corollary of this model is that the student can effectively be isolated from the subject expert (the teacher) by the very presence of the teaching assistant.

Some schools have moved to a faculty or department-based support model, allowing teaching assistants to develop the subject expertise to better support the level of content covered in secondary school settings. Where teaching assistants are assigned to deliver very focused and specific interventions, for which they receive the relevant training, their work has been seen to have significant impact. But these are school leadership decisions – teaching staff may not be consulted on the choice of model adopted for how teaching assistants are deployed within the school.

The guidance from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) on the effective deployment of teaching assistants, published earlier this year – entitled Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants – emphasises the fact that this is a school leadership issue. A proper infrastructure is needed to support teachers and teaching assistants to work together more effectively.

However, teachers and SENCOs still often find themselves working with “Velcro-ed” teaching assistants, with little or no opportunity for true collaboration. And even with the more faculty-based model, few teachers will have received either initial or in-service training on how to work most effectively with support staff.

The content of a new book – Achieving Outstanding Classroom Support in your Secondary School – which I have jointly authored with Cheryl Jones and Sioned Booth-Coates, draws on a range of research to provide a variety of very practical suggestions for how “outstanding support” can be promoted by secondary school teachers and SENCOs.

The suggestions are made on the assumption that they will be able to make changes to their own practice even without the intervention of the school’s senior leadership team. Below, I offer a selection of suggestions taken from the book.

Before the lesson

Before the teaching assistant even enters the classroom, teachers should include the question “how am I going to use the teaching assistant?” in all of their planning. Teaching assistants are no longer an add-on in classrooms; the research highlights that for too long they have been used as an alternative, parallel provision for the most challenged students. A first step towards more effective support is for the teaching assistant to be an integral part of the teacher’s planning – as the most expensive classroom resource available.

Teachers’ planning must include the teaching assistant’s role in behaviour management. What are they to do (or not do) in order to support the teacher’s approach to student behaviour? This needs to be made clear to the teaching assistant. It does not have to be a long discussion – or even a discussion at all if there really is no time. A brief list of “please do...” and “please don’t...” will allow the teaching assistant to know what’s expected and what will be considered helpful.

During the lesson

During class time teachers should give teaching assistants “permission” to move away from an assigned student and provide more general assistance in the classroom. This helps to counteract the well-documented high levels of dependency that so many students develop when supported by a teaching assistant.

It also allows the teacher (who is after all the subject specialist) greater access to the supported student to give him/her the benefit of subject expertise rather than the more general support of the teaching assistant. Teaching assistants can feel that they must stay beside the assigned student in order to carry out their role, but also that the teacher would object to their moving around – seeing it as a nuisance and distraction.

The use of a simple communication system between teacher and teaching assistant is important – something as straightforward as a folder kept in the classroom where the teacher can put a scheme of work or copies of material to be covered, which the teaching assistant can quickly scan as the teacher makes the initial presentation to the class or deals with general organisation, This is also a place where the teaching assistant can leave feedback on the work completed by the student during the class session.

It is also important that teachers acknowledge, and convey to the teaching assistant, that student engagement and thinking is more important than task completion.

One of the tendencies identified in the research was for teaching assistants to be more concerned with task completion than with helping students to develop conceptual understanding. So the teacher can convey that a partially completed task will be acceptable if feedback from the teaching assistant shows that the student has engaged with the material. Feedback on process is essentially more important than the product – and more helpful for the teacher’s onward planning.

Teachers should also convey to students – through words and actions – that the teaching assistant is his/her deputy and as such should be treated with proper respect. Too many teaching assistants still tell us that they are largely ignored by staff in the classrooms where they work, leaving them feeling uncertain about the value of their contributions.

These are just a selection of the suggestions. They are none of them complex, resource-intensive or especially time-consuming, and they derive from extensive discussions with teachers and teaching assistants, as well as findings from our own and international research. They are based on what secondary school teachers tell us is feasible, even within their busy and complex roles.

So often a teaching assistant is in a position where they have apparently been placed on a team and are expected to help that team win, but they have no idea of the rules of the game.

What can they do to help the team win? What should they avoid doing? What constitutes “winning” anyway? And in each classroom the game can be subtly different – the rules can change many times during the teaching assistant’s average day.

The teaching assistant will gradually pick up on the rules in most cases, but meanwhile they are poorly placed to contribute to team success unless deliberate steps are taken to bring them into the team and to support their contributions.

  • Jill Morgan is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Swansea. Her primary role is that of programme director for a foundation degree in learning support, where her students are all working as support staff in local schools and simultaneously studying part-time. A former teacher, she is the author of a number of books for teaching assistants, published both in the UK and the US. She also provides training for teaching assistants and for the teachers who work with them.

Outstanding Classroom Support

Achieving Outstanding Classroom Support in your Secondary School: Tried and tested strategies for teachers and SENCOs, by Jill Morgan, Cheryl Jones and Sioned Booth-Coates, is due to be published by Routledge at the end of November. Visit www.routledge.com/products/9781138833739

SecEd on teaching assistants

Further reading and resources

  • The report Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants, (EEF, spring 2015) is available at http://maximisingtas.co.uk/eef-guidance.php
  • The nasen booklet Effective Adult Support can be accessed at www.sendgateway.org.uk/resources.effective-adult-support.html
  • The outcomes of the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) project and other research relating to the work of teaching assistants can be found online. The site also includes guidance and proforma for conducting a school audit on the deployment of teaching assistants. Visit http://maximisingtas.co.uk/
  • TA Focus: For articles, blogs, links to courses for teaching assistants, relevant research, and other websites of interest, visit www.tafocus.co.uk
  • John Bayley’s clips (from the former Teachers TV website) on various aspects of behaviour are helpful, but searching YouTube using the term “Teaching Assistant” will produce a large number of other clips too.
  • Teaching Assistants and Paraeducators: A website for teaching assistants, with contributions from the US, UK, Australia and Canada. Includes factsheets for a variety of special needs and information on effective classroom practice, including working in collaboration with teachers: http://education.byu.edu/istap
  • “Teaching Assistants: Support in Action” is a free online unit of study for teaching assistants, part of the Open University’s Open Learn materials. Visit http://bit.ly/1ljVR9b
  • Professor Michael Giangreco at the University of Vermont has for many years been compiling a database of research relating to teaching assistants: http://bit.ly/1NqJ2jR
  • The EPPI Centre at UCL’s Institute of Education has a compiled an education database at http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms (searching using terms such as teaching assistant, support staff and LSA will return some 40 items of research and guidance).


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