Teaching Assistants – How Do You Use Yours?

Here’s a can of worms being opened! Mathew Needleman states that in his district in the US teaching assistants are being withdrawn from classrooms because they have been shown not to have a positive effect on children’s learning 😦

The first bit will sound really familiar to UK Teaching Assistants since Remodelling the Workforce

Creating Lifelong Learners » Blog Archive » How to Use a Teacher’s Assistant (But Not for Fun or Profit)
TA’s are most often used to do jobs that teachers would do themselves if they didn’t have a TA…making copies, putting up bulletin boards, grading papers, etc. It’s easy to see how these activities improve the life of a teacher but do not necessarily impact students’ academic standing particularly in low achieving schools. In fact, they might contribute to the teacher becoming less efficient in time management because they can simply rely on a TA when they are unprepared.

Hmm, not sure I agree with his conclusion there. Freeing up teachers does take a bit of pressure off them and in my experience it made them altogether nicer to live with! That had a very positive impact on children’s learning and on my job as a TA. When people are over-stressed they tend to pass it on to anyone under them be it support staff or kids. As for the stuff about displays 🙂 Most people reading this will know that I think working with small groups, talking through concepts whilst making displays is a very valuable and legitimate use of TA time!

Still, I agree some of the admin stuff not always the best use of TA, or teacher’s, time but it needs to be done. Then he goes on:

Another ineffective use of TAs is have them work in small groups with your lowest students while you work with the rest. I’ve known some TAs who were outstanding and as good in their delivery of lessons as the regular classroom teacher. However, the teacher is the only one who is credentialed and trained using core programs

Well, I have to agree that TAs shouldn’t work exclusively with any one group either the “strongest” or the “lowest” student group (and we’ll pass quickly over my objections to the use of that term!!). He goes on to say that really he doesn’t think TAs should be working with any groups introducing work, actually acting as teachers.

The ideal use of a TA then is not to replace the teacher or take care of the messy jobs (like copies) but to provide an additional small group teaching experience with students. The key word here is additional.

Nice in theory 🙂 However, in practice, I was always expected not just to provide additional support to learning but to deliver original content as well. Particularly with intervention schemes like ALS, ELS, FLS and Springboard Maths and also with Guided Reading. I mostly drew the line at covering PPA time on moral and educational grounds and to preserve my sanity! (It was one of those things where those of us who didn’t believe in it tended to do it less!) Usually it would be mentioned that I was ‘a safe pair of hands’ and I’d be left to get on with it. I suppose if I’m honest I quite relished the chance to get a group to myself and work creatively with them. I do worry about less qualified and confident TAs getting into deep water in those situations though.

I totally disagree with him about TAs working or sitting with individuals and repeating/explaining a teacher’s instructions.

  • Sometimes a quiet presence next to them, a calming look or gesture, can help a child with behaviour issues get through a carpet session.
  • Sometimes having the teacher’s instructions repeated and simplified is exactly what children with particular learning difficulties need!

It’s not that these children don’t bother to pay attention, it’s that they don’t have time to process what the teacher is saying to the whole class. Breaking it down, letting them deal with it in small chunks might mean the difference between getting some work done, meeting those all important learning objectives, and a child having a ‘melt-down’. A skilled TA knows how to do this but still encourage the child’s independence and a skilled teacher knows how to let them do that.I suppose that what it comes down to, skill. I think a really good TA has a different and complementary skill set to a class teacher. Working as a team they can and do raise standards.

So – how do you use your Teaching Assistant? Or if you are a TA how would you like to be used?


There’s a couple of other good discussions on this issue:

One in the comments section of a post from Mr Read 

One on the TA Chat Forum


One thought on “Teaching Assistants – How Do You Use Yours?

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful response to my article. I was hoping an actual teaching assistant would respond and you did.

    You’ve addressed a lot and I understand most of your points, however, the one issue I’ll revisit is having the TA repeat directions.

    Some students do have this written in their IEP (a specialized plan for special education students) as I stated and if they have a specific auditory processing problem then of course the TA can address it. However, in Los Angeles when we have a TA we have them for one or two hours a day. When the teacher is doing a whole group lesson and everyone is working together on the workbook then I see it as my job to simplify the directions enough so that everyone can follow along. (In fact, that’s a mandated part of reading program). Consistently students would be working fine when the TA was not in the room but when the TA was there, all of a sudden they were unable to do their work, they would rely on the TA, and they would fall behind and be unable to keep up with the class. I need them to be learning to keep up with the class because we’ve still got another four hours to go and these were students who did not have auditory processing problems, it was just easier to have a personal assistant.

    The point of the workbook pages (and there are many in our required reading program) is not so much that you put the right scribble on the right line (I could care less about that but that was what the TA was most concerned about) but that the students understand the concepts (commas go in a list, verbs are action words, etc.). The real assessment of their learning would come later when they would do authentic writing.

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