Historically, teaching assistants, or auxiliaries as they were sometimes formerly known, were non teaching adults who helped qualified teachers by carrying out day to day preparatory and administrative tasks and providing pastoral care to children. (Clayton. 1993) However, in 1998, the Local Government Chronicle published a summary of a Green Paper, (LGC, 1998), in which they outlined proposals for employing a greater number of support staff – 20,000 by the year 2002 – in order to provide more support for teachers. The summary also announced the government’s suggestions for a “more effective use of, and better training for, teaching assistants and other school support staff” which, along with a subsequent OfSTED review, (2002a, p6) declared the need for training that would, “match any proposed structure of qualifications and to facilitate career progression.” The implementation of national occupational standards for teaching assistants, approved in 2001, and the HLTA status introduced in 2003, (TDA, 2008) offered committed support staff the opportunity to progress and acquire the skills to become more accomplished educators. Working as a teaching assistant started to become a career and so began the real debate about the role of the teaching assistant.
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As with many job titles within the working environment, the title teaching assistant is often interpreted in a variety of ways but one common theme I have encountered, when questioning educational staff, is that all teaching assistants have the potential to be facilitators of learning and therefore are essential elements in the development of learning for children. How the facilitation is carried out, however, is less clear and open to individual interpretation by both employers and employees.
In order to support the learning of all children, teaching assistants, like any educator, need to have a good understanding of how children learn. In the book, Teaching and Learning in the Early Years, Whitebread (2008, chapter 1) discusses Piaget’s ideas that children need to feel and hold control over their learning. Whitebread continues by exploring Vygotsy’s claims that it is the role of the adult to provide opportunities for social interaction and to support the child in moving out of their comfort zone or “level of actual development” and towards their potential via their “zone of proximal development.” To do this, a teaching assistant must understand how to promote curiosity amongst children while providing opportunities for discussion and exploration. With current class sizes in the region of up to 30 pupils, a class teacher will often be unable to engage in this vital aspect of developing children’s learning and so it is essential that supporting adults are equipped with the skills to “scaffold” learning and to provide opportunities for them to develop the language needed to be able to discuss and explain their ideas. (Bruner 1983, cited in Peabody Journal of Education, pp 64-66)
Recently I was fortunate to be part of an initiative to promote reading amongst a group of reluctant pupils who had formulated an opinion that reading was a chore to be undertaken with animosity and only when instructed to do so. Upon investigation, it was obvious that these children had encountered a variety of barriers that had influenced their attitude and ability to read. My role was that of the “enabling adult” as described by Chambers (1991). By providing them with an opportunity to share and discuss each other’s reading experiences I was able to promote and inspire in them a willingness and enjoyment of reading. The outcome of this quickly became apparent in their understanding of written text. The children also began writing with enthusiasm, using their own knowledge and experiences; as a result, they had taken control of their own learning. The children’s vocal responses demonstrated that they felt empowered by the fact that they were directly responsible for the progress that they were making and they continue to enjoy our weekly discussions about their reading and progress.
The children mentioned do not have special educational needs, as is often the case for pupils being supported by a teaching assistant. Children with SEN require a higher level of support and this has, traditionally, been provided by teaching assistants. (Alborz et al, 2009a) This has previously been an area for debate with The Daily Telegraph (2009) publishing an article claiming that research shows that, “Pupils make less progress in classrooms where schools employ more teaching assistants”. This article states that teaching assistants often support lower attaining pupils, resulting in them being less supported by a qualified teacher and to them making limited progress. The article does not, however, take into account the training of the teaching assistants. While reviewing the impact of workforce remodeling, a report by OfSTED (2004) stated that when a teaching assistant is appointed to work with carefully chosen pupils and is provided with the appropriate training to do so effectively, the pupils make significant progress. This is, of course, as well as the obvious benefits of providing the teacher with more time to focus on other pupils.
Having worked alongside several teaching assistants employed to support children with SEN I have witnessed the immeasurable benefit to the pupil and the class as a whole. The teaching assistants enabled the pupils to be included in a mainstream classroom and access the curriculum, while allowing the class teacher to support the majority of the pupils. Their support involved the re-enforcing of the whole class teaching, giving the pupil the confidence to participate in class discussions, simplification of vocabulary, offering praise and encouragement and feedback on the completed task. Following the lesson, the teaching assistant also provided the teacher with assessment and monitoring feedback to enable assessment of and for learning. This assessment has become a vital aspect of the role of the teaching assistant and supports the teacher and pupil by enabling differentiation and personalised learning to become every day practice. (OfSTED, 2002b)
Guidance published by the NFER (2002, cited in Department for Education and Skills, 2005, p.22) found that when teachers and teaching assistants work in partnership, the results are a more effective level of teaching and learning. An example of this is a scenario I have experienced recently where a teaching assistant supported the learning of the majority of the class while the class teacher focused on the children with SEN. As a result of the teacher and teaching assistant having spent time working together to plan the lesson, the teaching assistant was able to support the learning objectives and assist pupils in their achievement of them.
Teaching assistants can also, when included in the planning of a lesson, actively participate in the delivery of the lesson providing an alternative viewpoint or by playing a character in role. One such example was provided by my colleague who, upon realising that many of the pupils within the class had misunderstood a key concept, pretended to be confused and raised a hand to ask for clarification. As a result, pupils developed a clearer understanding of the lesson and therefore, the teaching assistant had played an important role in developing their learning.
By implementing a combination of all of these approaches and with effective training and guidance, teaching assistants can provide invaluable support for all children within any lesson.
Teaching assistants also support behaviour management within classes and can provide an alternative level of perception within the classroom. In daily Literacy lessons, I have observed a teaching assistant supporting a pupil with ADHD and have no doubt that without her presence, the class teacher would have to spend a large proportion of the lesson settling the child and addressing low level distractions. Personal experience has shown me that children with emotional or behavioural difficulties are often more responsive towards a teaching assistant with whom they can forge a positive adult / child relationship. This can contribute towards the social and emotional wellbeing of the child as outlined by Alborz et al. (2009b).
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Besides the opportunity to support children’s learning during lesson time, teaching assistants continue to carry out a multitude of administrative tasks in order to support the class teacher and the school as a whole. The National Agreement, (ATL et al. 2003, p.2), implemented as part of the governments workforce remodelling initiative, states that teachers should not spend their time carrying out administrative responsibilities that do not make full use of their skills and expertise but that these tasks should be carried out by support staff. The agreement outlines twenty-one tasks that teaching staff should not be required to carry out including the preparation of classroom resources, photocopying, the collection of monies for educational visit and the preparation and setting up of displays. These tasks must also, therefore, be considered the responsibility of the teaching assistant. Each and every one of the administrative tasks has an impact on the educational environment and therefore contributes towards supporting the development of children’s learning. In practice, however, the need for teaching assistants to be more involved in the delivery of lessons surely means that they too will have less time for carrying out administrative duties which in turn might relay these duties back into the hands of the teachers.
In my experience, teaching assistants often offer unconditional support for the school in which they are employed. Many carry out duties beyond their working hours providing curriculum enrichment activities and regularly being at the forefront of fund raising events. They frequently are able to provide a connection between local communities and their schools as they often live in close proximity to their workplace. This is a non essential yet valuable part of their role as it enables teaching staff to be aware of local issues and provides a link between parents and schools. (Lipsett, 2008)
In conclusion, the role of the teaching assistant has evolved significantly over recent years and can offer committed individuals with a recognised career that is both progressive and rewarding. With appropriate professional development opportunities, a teaching assistant can give invaluable support to individuals and groups of pupils, teaching staff, parents and schools. By providing pastoral care, administrative support and personalised learning they can, as outlined in the Governments Every Child Matters initiative (DfES, 2003), promote enjoyment and achievement in a safe, nurturing environment; contribute to the academic and emotional wellbeing of all children; help them to become successful members of the school and wider community.
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