Tips for working effectively with your teaching assistant

Humans are complex beings. I could just stop there and leave you to ponder…but I make the statement for a reason.

When it comes to the workplace, understanding and appreciating the fact that humans are complex beings, will enable you to look at things from a very different perspective.

When it comes to those you work closest with in the workplace, understanding and appreciating the fact that humans are complex beings, is the first step towards building successful working relationships.

Here are my top tips for developing a positive relationship with your Teaching Assistant (TA) and thus paving the way to a more harmonious academic year.

Get to know the person behind the role

This may sound like I’m stating the obvious, but it’s tempting to go in on the first day and start talking shop. What are we going to put up on the displays? Do we have enough rulers? Is it a good idea to put Kayode and Sheamus next to each other because their Year X teacher said they talked all the time.

Start the day off by getting to know the real person. How long have they been at the school? Do they have children? What do they enjoy doing outside of school? Have they seen the latest episode of [insert name of programme]? Getting to know someone on a personal level breaks down barriers. You spend at least 5 hours a day with that person much of it in the same space and when you know them on a more personal level it will help to create a more relaxed atmosphere. It also paves the way for difficult conversations and enables you to better understand the reasons behind certain behaviours. For example, if you’re aware that they have young children, when they come into school and seem frazzled or distracted you have more of an awareness of why this might be. This in turn lessens the tendency to assume the reason they’re distracted or don’t want to engage in conversation has something to do with you.

Find out how they work best

Some people are really organised, like everything in a certain place and need to know in advance what’s happening. Others are happy to go with the flow, work out what the day’s going to look like half an hour before the children come in to school and if a display is a bit dogeared, it’s not the end of the world. In classroom teams, opposites don’t always attract but if you communicate how you prefer to work from the outset, it can help to avoid an awful lot of frustration.

Find out from your TA how they prefer to work; would they like you to write tasks down in a notebook or would they prefer you to just tell them as and when they need doing? Are you happy for them to put their intervention resources anywhere, or have you set up a designated area for them?

Ask, find out and work it out, that way ground rules/expectations/understanding is fully established and if something does go a bit awry, you have a foundation to fall back on – remember when we talked about how this would work….

The most important thing here is not to dictate, agree how things will work best.

Don’t leave school angry

Similar to the advice to couples about not going to bed angry, if you’ve had a disagreement with your class TA (or any other member of staff) don’t leave school still brewing. As much as possible try to sort the issue out and clear the air. If you leave school with the issue unresolved, you’ll more than likely come back to school the next day with an unresolved issue and run the risk of creating a bad atmosphere for most of the day.

Arguments often occur due to misunderstandings and if it’s a misunderstanding that’s caused the issue, the solution is to figure out what the misunderstanding is and seek to rectify it. All too often we consider our way the right way or feel we know best. Even if that’s true, there are ways to communicate that will ensure clarity.

Sometimes we have to be willing to agree to disagree and that’s ok. Everyone has a different point of view. What’s important is that we respect those views; I mean, that’s what we tell children all the time, so we need to ensure we’re putting our own advice into action.

Know your boundaries

The more we get to know someone, the more time we may spend with them outside of school socialising at the pub on a Friday evening or being invited to significant events. It’s worth remembering that you are professional colleagues first and social mates second so professional boundaries must be established. As a class teacher, you still need to be able to direct your teaching assistant and ensure they undertake the tasks assigned to them. This means there’s no room for allowing something that may have taken place outside of school to impact on what happens in school.

When my husband was a student teacher within the same federation that I was a deputy at and he came to my school for a placement, I couldn’t allow my personal relationship with him to cloud my view of his performance in the classroom. If there was something not right, it had to be dealt with. And then we were still very much in love when we got home in the evenings! 😊

Involve your TA in class decisions

As much as you are accountable for pupils’ attainment, progress and outcomes (as per the Teachers’ Standards), you work as a team and your TA should feel part of that team.

Issues usually occur due to poor communication. For example, on Monday you notice some children are getting easily distracted by their peers, so you decide to make changes which involve moving the furniture around. On Tuesday your TA comes in to work and sees everything has been switched around but you don’t say anything because you’re focussed on getting the first lesson ready. The first time the TA finds out about the reasons behind the changes is when you announce it to the class. The TA is then expected to nod in agreement, despite the fact that he/she hasn’t even had time to process any of it or work out where she/he will now sit to do interventions.

That sort of thing can breed resentment, because although a seemingly small issue, it can seem as if they’re not important enough to know about things in advance. Simply by asking the TA on Monday if they’ve noticed the lack of focus and what your plans are, or prioritising a quick conversation before the children arrive about the reasons you’ve moved things around, will make them feel more involved.

The key to any successful relationship is communication and this is just as important when it comes to working with your Teaching Assistant. My motto is you don’t know what someone is thinking unless you ask them, so make a point of having proper conversations with your TA. They want to do a good job for the children too, so if you’re able to develop effective communication between the two of you, the children in your class will be the ultimate beneficiaries of those positive working relations.  

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