By Rebecca Van Homan
Posted 27 August 2019
I remember reading somewhere about the number of decisions that teachers make in a day. It is comparable to, or greater than, the decisions an air traffic controller makes. Air traffic controllers work a strict eight-hour shift limit. During these eight hours they may work ‘on station’ anywhere from 30 minutes up to, but not exceeding, 2 hours. The Federal Aviation Authority has realised that after about two hours of incredibly strenuous work, concentration and performance drop substantially.
However, air traffic controllers don’t work in isolation. When there is a difficult decision to be made, there is always someone else in the room to talk through a decision. Teachers are making moment by moment decisions –
Do I intervene? Is Moira listening? How do I reword ‘syncopation’ so the students understand?
And teachers are making these constant judgements constantly. Teachers are ‘on station’ for at least 6 hours a day with no one to prevent an air collision with.
I have worked in schools where I have taught classes of children on my own and it is a lonely business. When there is a highly skilled teaching assistant in the classroom, the value s/he brings is immeasurable. There are times when you need a second opinion about what is going on in the classroom or that extra pair of eyes noticing things one pair can’t. Plus, children form different relationships with different adults and having the choice of which adult to approach, talk to, or confide in, can be really important for children.
I worked with an incredible teaching assistant who had the same ‘Paddington Bear stare’ and those shared looks across the classroom spoke as much as words ever did. With just a raised eyebrow she would know exactly what needed to be done and had the skills to do it. Moreover, she could anticipate what needed to be done and would gently remind me, ‘shall we finish the science assessments tomorrow?’.
When it Just Works…
Teaching with a highly skilled teaching assistant is like watching jazz music. The tempo can be changed on a dime, the players step in and out, and can improvise with talented expertise and syncopation.
Jazz music uses the call and response technique which is integral to teaching. I remember many ‘hot seating’ moments – one of the most memorable double acts when we emerged from the cupboard dressed as either Town Mouse or Country Mouse – and modelled for the children how to ask questions to these people in character. (Primary school teachers tend to love an opportunity to dress up and what better than a double act?) The children loved it, but more importantly were able to then use this joint teaching experience in their own learning.
A benefit of having two education professionals in the classroom is the unique skill set that each person brings. This complementary dynamic enhances the learning experience exponentially. I am not creative and have been particularly grateful for the many teaching assistants I have worked with who have created the most fabulous displays and role plays. These elements both inspire children and enhance the classroom learning environment. I remember once looking across the classroom while I was reading a story to the class to see the TA making a golden harp. As you do. And we just smiled at each other.
Having a debrief at the end of the day with a cup of tea may seem to be an insignificant moment but it is the best formative assessment teachers can have. Having that extra ‘knowledgeable other’ to bounce ideas off and listen to their insights on how the day’s lessons have gone, as well as thoughts on the emotional states of some of the students, enhances the learning which takes place and better supports the welfare of the students.
How to Get to that “Jazz Music” Dynamic… (hint: it involves providing professional development opportunities)
This ‘bag of tricks’ as a teaching assistant comes from experience and engaging with ongoing professional development. Teaching children how to read and write is a complex task. Having the skills to be able to use a relevant prompt when to a child is struggling is something which takes thought and training. Noticing what a child is doing when they are approaching a maths activity and then intervening to support the correct use of vocabulary or prompting for number formation takes a skilled ‘noticing’ adult. The more you know, the more you see!
However, opportunities for teaching assistants to engage in continued professional learning can vary widely. All too often it is up to the individual TA to seek out courses to take, books to read or colleagues to get ‘tips’ from. The status of teaching assistants can vary in schools, with the best schools ensuring TAs have access to ongoing continuing professional development and learning, having staff meetings that are designed to include the needs of support staff and providing TAs with the time to meet as a group.
We know from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) research that teaching assistants work best when they are given the time to meet with teachers and are clear about the learning objectives and intended outcomes before they go into the lesson. It is important to consider these thoughts as school leaders, also.
- Have you identified the activities where TAs can support learning, rather than simply managing tasks?
- Have you provided support and training for teachers and TAs so that they understand how to work together effectively?
- How will you ensure that teachers do not reduce their support or input to the pupils supported by TAs?
- Have you considered how you will evaluate the impact of how you deploy your TAs?
A Learning Toolkit for Maximum Impact
A key skill for teaching assistants to develop is the ability to ignore the urge to do the work for the student and to move away from the need for ‘task completion’.
The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) proposes a hierarchy of teaching assistant interactions which 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.
The ability to be able to know which prompt to use to illicit the most learning for a student from an activity takes skill, practice and understanding of the complex nature of learning in the classroom.
What can class teachers do to support teaching assistants?
As a class teacher, I see it as part of my role to develop the skills of the teaching assistant by nurturing his/her skills, sharing different teaching methods and being explicit about the how and why lessons are being taught, why certain vocabulary is being used, for example.
So, as we begin a new school year, it is important to remember and appreciate the skills that teaching assistants bring to the classroom – and to the jazz routine – but also support their continued professional learning and development in schools.
ILA Programmes that Support Teaching and Learning
- International Professional Qualifications in Supporting Teaching and Learning — Level 2 CACHE Certificate
- International Professional Qualifications in Supporting Teaching and Learning — Level 3 CACHE Certificate
- Bosanquet, Paula & Radford, Julie & Webster, Rob. (2016). The teaching assistant’s guide to effective interaction: How to maximise your practice.