ECT teaching – how to best work with your TA

Are you new to the classroom and not sure how to manage others? Sara Alston shares the dos and don’ts you both need to thrive

by Teachwire
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For many early career teachers (ECTs), the biggest challenge is not managing the children in their class, but the adults. Faced with a TA with more classroom experience who is often several years their senior, then being expected to direct and deploy them effectively can feel like an overwhelming task.

There is an implicit belief within schools and teacher training that those who can manage a class of children can also manage an adult, so there is little, if any, training on TA deployment.

Equally, the statutory guidance provides minimal further information:

  • ‘Deploy support staff effectively’ (The Teacher Standards (2013)
  • ‘Teaching assistants (TAs) can support pupils more effectively when they are prepared for lessons by teachers, and when TAs supplement rather than replace support from teachers.’ (The ITT Core Content Framework (2019)
  • ‘Build effective working relationships by seeking ways to support individual colleagues and working as part of a team.’ (The Early Career Framework (2021)
  • ‘Teachers are responsible and accountable for the progress and development of the pupils in their class, including where pupils access support from teaching assistants or specialist staff.’ (SEND Code of Practice para 6.36 (2015)

This feels like quite a lot of ‘what’, but little of ‘how’.

The key to effective TA deployment is communication and relationship building. But this is difficult as there is little time available – many TAs work only school hours, plus 15 to 30 minutes if we are lucky.

The situation is exacerbated as many TAs have little formal training and there are no clear expectations or career structure for the TA role.

Yet, we know that TAs can play a vital role in supporting children’s learning and promoting their wellbeing, so we need to make this work.

There are several key things you can do to make this easier:

How to be a good manager

The guidance is clear that a TA should work under the direction of teacher and their role is to supplement, not replace them.

Managing a TA is often an ECT’s first leadership role. Recognising this, and that you need to lead a team that works together to support the best interests of the children in your care, can be very helpful.

This includes identifying which individuals and groups of pupils your TA should work with, how and when.

Setting expectations

Having a plan for how you and your TA(s) will work together, establishing shared expectations, strategies and approaches is important and a good starting point.

It can be helpful to formalise this into a ‘classroom contract’ setting out the roles of the different staff. This needs to be a working document and developed in collaboration with your TAs.

It clarifies everyone’s roles at each stage of the lesson, including before (planning) and after the lesson (feedback). It allows your TA to ask questions, make comments and suggestions.

‘Class contracts’ may include certain common elements across a school, but will need to be personalised for each class to meet the needs of the different children and staff. Most importantly, they will need to be reviewed and adjusted as the year goes on.

Sharing planning and feedback

The lack of time often means that TAs are on the back foot with the content of lessons and what you want them to do to support learning.

As a result, many often work with the same children in the same way as this is their comfort zone. You need to find a way to share your planning and provide space for your TA to feed back on it, that works for you both.

Some TAs prefer to receive hard copies of planning slides that they can annotate with feedback; others like to see planning online and share feedback by email.

I use three key questions to move TAs on from ‘What do you want me to do?’ to more active support for learning. The answers can fit on the back of an envelope!

What is the learning intention? Whatever these are called in your school, they are the focus of the lesson and what the children are going to learn. This needs to include enough information to be useful (e.g. not just addition, but addition with exchange using formal methods with two- and three-digit numbers), ideally with an example.

What is the key vocabulary? This is the new, technical, or unusual vocabulary pupils will need to access the learning. Highlight the key vocabulary on your planning and/or slides, so your TA can use it as prompts with the children.

What is the desired outcome? What are the children expected to produce by the end of the lesson? Consider what flexibility there is in this, so the task can be adapted to meet children’s needs and different ways of demonstrating their learning. This can support your TA to focus on the learning, not just task completion.

Don’t assume knowledge and understanding

Mind-reading is not part of the training for teachers or TAs. It is all too easy for us to assume that the reasons for using particular approaches or strategies in the classroom will be clear to our teaching assistants.

This is not always true. Equally, your TA may hold knowledge about the school and its traditions, the children and their families, as well as practical things like how to mend the photocopier.

In both cases, we tend to forget that what is obvious to us, is not to the other. Respecting each other’s knowledge, and taking time to explain and listen can solve many problems later.

Seeking support if you need it

All relationships take time to develop and have ups and downs. Expect there to be points of tension between you and your TA, but hopefully, these will be short and few and far between.

Occasionally, teachers and TAs can get to a point where one, other or both feel that they are constantly walking on eggshells. This is not good for anyone, including the children.

If you find yourself in this position, it is essential to seek help from senior staff. This is not an admission of failure or that you are not managing the class successfully, but a recognition of a reality that makes teaching even more difficult.

Appreciating your TAs

Difficulties occur when teachers don’t make TAs feel valued and part of the team. TAs want teachers to ask their opinions, share feedback and know they are valued and respected.

Like all of us, TAs want to know when they have done their job well. Too often praise for success in the classroom goes to the teacher and not the TA.

In the hustle and bustle of the classroom, it is easy to forget to let our TAs know what they have done well. We can find ourselves in a situation where we only pick up on what our TA has done wrong and assume that they know when things are going well. A simple thank you goes a long way.

Making the teacher/ TA relationship work is about the willingness to listen, learn and work in partnership, so that you provide a consistent response to the children.

Sara Alston is an independent consultant and trainer with SEA Inclusion and Safeguarding, and a practising SENCo.

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