What makes a good teaching assistant?
In this blog, we dispense with you five key strategies for being an effective and impactful teaching assistant. As a Primary teacher with over 8 years of experience, I have worked with many TAs over the years. The very best teaching assistants I have worked with possessed many of the teaching assistant skills outlined below. Great teaching assistants make a positive impact on students and elevate the learning environments they are a part of.
You may also find it informative to check out an example of Teaching Assistant Standards, such as this one by the NEU. The advice below would be useful for teaching assistants going for a new position in the near future.
Trial Days for Teaching Assistants
Commonly, schools like to see prospective TAs ‘in action’ before deciding whether to offer them a long term position. You are just as likely to be given a ‘trial day’ as you are an interview as an opportunity to show a school you are the right candidate for the job. Trial days are essentially supply days, where you go and work in a classroom or with a group of students to support them with their learning. A day like this can be a great opportunity for you to learn a little more about the school itself too. The class teacher and a member of SLT is likely to observe you for periods throughout the trial day to assess your suitability. They will be watching to see how you:
- Demonstrate understanding of the learning objective for the lesson
- Build rapport with students using positive and clear communication
- Motivate and get students engaged with an activity
- Adapt an activity to remove any barriers to a student’s learning
- Are proactive with supporting in the classroom with resources and lesson preparation where necessary
Therefore, brushing up on your teaching assistant skills is vital if you are going to impress on your next trial day! The below advice is useful for teaching assistants looking for work for those already in post looking for a refresh.
Read on for Prospero’s top five tips for showing off your teaching assistant skills:
1. Communicate with the class teacher
As we have mentioned, ideally you will have some time to brief the day before children arrive at the start of the day. This would be a useful opportunity to ask questions which will give you useful information in supporting students. For example:
- ‘How have the class been getting on with their maths learning so far this week?’
- ‘Is there anything I should know about this group of students? e.g. SEND, targets, behaviour plans’
- ‘Which strategies help motivate this group of students?’
- ‘Is there a positive reward scheme used in the classroom which I could reinforce with the students?’
Make sure you are clear on transition routines for the classroom, for example getting ready for break, lunch and hometime. This varies from class to class and school to school so by asking you will become familiar with the routine that works best for this particular class.
Usually, at home-time, the class gathers on the carpet or at tables to recap the learning from the day and to hear a story or song. After this, children will be encouraged to use the toilet before collecting their ‘home-time things’ (bags, coats, water bottles etc.)
When all children have gone, feedback to the Class Teacher the children’s learning achievements that you recorded from the day. Ask the Class Teacher if there is anything you can help with in terms of preparing for the following day.
Ask to meet with the Deputy Headteacher or HR Manager to link in and inform them of how your day went and to thank them for the experience. You may be invited for an interview at this stage, which may take place then and there or it might be arranged for a future date.
2. Be proactive as soon as you arrive in the classroom
A common mistake made by TAs entering into a classroom for the first time is to head to the back of the classroom and wait for instructions from the teacher. Ideally, you will have a chance to chat with the teacher or SENCo who will fill you in on the learning objectives covered during the day and on the specific needs of the students you will be working with. However, sometimes this is not possible, and you must still do your best to have a positive impact in the classroom.
Offer to support with preparing resources or supporting with setting up the classroom. Once the lesson has started, reinforce the instructions given to the children by the teacher by gesturing to students to go to their seats or open their exercise books for example.
Choose a table to work with and support them with their learning. Get them talking about their learning by asking questions such as, ‘what do you think you need to do next?’, ‘can you tell me about what you’re learning today?’ or ‘what do you think you’ll find challenging about this task?’
3. Positively reinforce class behaviour with your teaching assistant skills
Some teaching assistants feel mistakenly feel that behaviour management is the sole responsibility of the class teacher. While it is the teacher’s responsibility to manage the classroom and set expectations, the best teaching assistant skills reinforce these expectations using combinations of positive praise, reminders of the rules and clear instructions. Below are some strategies for positively reinforcing good behaviour in the classroom:
- Help settle the children on the carpet or at their tables (as required) for the main learning sessions. You can use phrases like ‘Can you show me your lovely listening?’ Well done ‘x’, I can see you are ready.’
- Praise the children if you see them making sensible choices (e.g. good listening, good sitting, looking eyes etc.). You can do this is a non-verbal means of ‘thumbs-up’ if the teacher is speaking.
- When the children are completing their main learning activity, you can help to ensure that they stay on task by encouraging them to concentrate and praising them as they complete their work e.g. ‘Oh wow, well done! Let’s try another one…’, ‘I can see you tried hard with that one, good work’.
- Help to keep low-level disruption to a minimum, especially when the teacher is speaking. Discourage your students from speaking to you or each other when they should be listening to instructions.
- Don’t be offended by students challenging your expectations. Instead, treat it as curiosity and respond positively, but remain firm and remind students of how they should behave.
- Avoid overbearing, confrontational or intimidating behaviour management (e.g. ‘No! Don’t do that!’) Negativity fuels negative behaviour. It’s much more effective to praise those making the right choices.
4. Get students talking about their learning
When meeting a new group of children for the first time, you’ll want to introduce yourself, state that you are there to support their learning and perhaps take some time to set your expectations for behaviour. After this, the discussion should focus on the learning at hand. Most students will be used to new adults coming into the classroom and will be ready to get on with an activity. However, some may see a new adult as an opportunity to cause disruption and to talk about topics other than the learning. Be firm, and refocus the conversation on to the task at hand. This is a good strategy if you are faced with quite a quiet and reserved student – ask them about what they are doing, about what they like doing and what they find tricky.
Ensure that your questioning is appropriate to all ability levels and ensure that the more able children are challenged appropriately. If children struggle to access the learning, use short and clear instructions to help them. You could model how to complete the activity in simple steps and then support the children as they ‘have a go’.
5. Adapt tasks and activities to support student progress
Many teaching assistants choose to keep a mini whiteboard and pen with them to use for examples and diagrams to support children to understand the learning at hand.
A really effective way to guide children through a learning task is to revisit with them the learning objective and the steps to success (or success criteria that go with them.) These should break down a larger ‘chunk’ of learning into smaller bitesize pieces. If a student is daunted by a task, helping them to break it down into steps without giving them the answer is a great method.
Use your initiative – when your students are working well, give them some independence and see where else you can assist in the classroom.
Go beyond the basics of ‘assisting’ to help students access the work. Can you differentiate to make it accessible? Discuss with the teacher what part you can play in implement the school’s behaviour and rewards system.
Help students to reach their own discoveries by using questioning to prompt and extend their learning – don’t spoon-feed, do the work yourself or give answers.
Thank you for reading our post on teaching assistant skills. Let us know if you find it helpful, or if you think there is some important points we should include in the future!
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