Teaching Assistants Don’t Just Support the Children…

Written a couple of years ago, this is just my reflection on how important the teacher-teaching assistant relationship was to my own professional development. I’m reposting it today to celebrate National TA Day. When I originally posted it, about a year ago, the teaching assistants in my area were beginning their fight against 25% pay cuts. The local news this morning reported that this continues today. This saddens and angers me in equal measure. This is why…


Teaching Assistants Don’t Just Support the Children…

It has been a year since I last worked as a classroom teacher and I have been reflecting on my 16 years of primary school teaching. I was an ‘Outstanding’ teacher for most of my career. I brought conscientiousness, creativity and passion to the table. But my success is partially attributable to the succession of fabulous, class-based teaching assistants I was lucky enough to work with. Through our genuine teamwork we created learning environments where mistakes were celebrated, effort was valued and the children – and we – felt safe to try. This atmosphere of true learning is the somewhat intangible, immeasurable benefit of class-based teaching assistants. It is only with hindsight that I realise how much I learned from them and how crucial their role is in teacher development as well as children’s learning.

Benefits to the children

Building relationships and understanding emotions

I have been fortunate enough to work in schools where there was a commitment to maintaining classroom TAs and I believe they are the most valuable resource in any classroom. The phrase ‘in loco parentis’ is seldom thought about during the tumult of the school day. But a good teacher/TA working relationship models mutual support, respectful communication and, over time, genuine affection – exemplifications of the ‘ideal’ parent.

They feel two adults caring for them, in different ways, at the same point in their lives. They trust both adults to keep them safe within boundaries that they both reinforce – despite the predictable ‘beginning of the year’ attempts to play one off against the other! Children have the opportunity to connect with two grown-ups who care for them equally. It is also part of generating a ‘class’ identity with both good and bad shared experiences. Through observation alone the children can see that different people handle the same situations differently. By getting to know two different adults they can begin to see, at a more subtle level, that emotions are displayed in varying ways. Instinctively, we would interpret each other’s moods and behaviours for the children. For example; “Mrs …’s feeling a bit grumpy today because she’s caught the flu bug you’ve all had.” And “ Mrs……is rushing because there is an important visitor coming in tomorrow”. (No prizes for guessing who that was!) A class-based TA offers the children the chance to build a real relationship with another adult who is invested in their learning and happiness.

The ‘programme led’ TA

Contrast this with the roving TA who arrives to input a literacy or numeracy programme to a particular child or group for half an hour three times per week. We all know the format – ‘targeted programmes’ for ‘identified children’ that aim for ‘x’ steps of progress in a half term. Due to high demand, the poor travelling TA has only just enough time to whip through the prescribed session before sprinting off to the next corridor/library/cupboard for the following group. Their timetables are too rigid for critical social interactions and the children regard them as ‘the adult I do maths with’, rather than an entire person. I appreciate the value of carefully structured SEN support. But if you are already feeling vulnerable as a learner, do you really need the additional challenge of engaging with a new adult that you never really get to know? A trusting relationship is the only way to remove some barriers to learning, such as the feelings of exposure and embarrassment felt by people tackling their speech and language difficulties.

Benefits to teachers

Nurturing the newbie

As a teacher I gained so much from my various TA relationships. As a brand new teacher, with lots of enthusiasm but only basic practical experience, I was coached and coaxed through my first year in Reception by my first class-based, part time TA. She would gently enquire “Are we going to assembly today?” with just enough time for us to shepherd them all into something resembling a line. Being entirely unprepared for actually teaching how to ‘make a line’, I am eternally grateful for her demonstration of the ‘let’s make a train’ method! She wisely advised me against having the sand tray next to the painting table and prevented many similar practical disasters. Most importantly, she modelled how to gently and effectively communicate with these teeny-weeny people whose ways were, as yet, unfamiliar to me. She handled me with the same light sarcasm and kindness as she did the children and we all grew with her guidance. She never made me feel incompetent, whilst ensuring I avoided the most confidence-crushing mistakes.

Amazing individuals

A myriad of attributes arrived within each individual class-based TA I worked with;

  • The creative scatter-brain who profoundly changed my pretend play interactions with the children after I observed her amazing capacity to immediately enter any imaginary world.
  • There were a couple of wonderful women whose gruff, no-nonsense manner was initially a little scary. But it didn’t take long for a fierce loyalty, the most generous hearts and a delightful mischievousness to surface. When these women shared some of their personal stories with me I really could not have felt more humble in the presence of such strength.
  • The quiet, stunningly talented lady who improved every single display I planned using her unique artistic flair.
  • The steadfast calmness of a wonderful woman who emits a maternal gentleness to everyone around her. Her enveloping cuddles providing respite for many a troubled little soul. She also has the astonishing ability to fix or build anything and would often extend the children by questioning and showing them things that I would never think of.
  • The whirlwind who combines speed and accuracy into an exemplar of efficiency. That very same whirlwind is the most empathic person I have ever met and most of the children she knows will never realise how much they benefit from her understanding of human nature.

I have not named any of these individuals as they are universally dreadful at accepting public praise and I do not wish to cause them any undue embarrassment. The other common trait they all share is a marvellous sense of humour and the willingness to liberally apply it to as many situations as possible!

Counterbalancing my deficiencies

There is a certain degree of skills balance within the class teacher and class TA team. To my astonishment, every single TA was able to understand my garbled explanations for displays, role play areas and DT activities. They were all able to interpret my concept and practically realise it! My brain would never have gotten from point A to point B on its own!

Supporting ‘the teacher’ as a person

All of these TAs have also shown remarkable patience with the pitfalls of both my role as teacher and my personal flaws; dreadful handwriting, shoddy sketches as display plans, vague instructions, poorly handled stress, indecisiveness, unresolved anger, varying levels of fear, exhaustion, sensitivity…I think I’ll just end that depressing list there! I’m sure most class-based TAs have seen their teachers through the full mixed bag of emotions. For this, all I can do is say the woefully inadequate “sorry” and “thank-you”.

Being ‘in it together’

We also shared the ebb and flow of the classroom as we move through all of the rituals that mark every school year. First days, class assemblies, wet plays (Aaaaargh!), flu season, hayfever season, Harvest Festival, World Book Dressing up day etc…..all shared, analysed and remembered together. It is at these higher pressure times that you synchronise as a tight working team. You anticipate the needs of the situation and each other.

For example; When you are in the middle of the fourth germ ridden Nativity rehearsal of the week, you were doing assessments until 10 the night before and you really feel like joining King 2 in his meltdown over wanting the “gold crown, not the silver one” – there is nothing like your TA stepping in with a firm “10 fingers” to restore quiet, removing the overwrought king and then whispering that its only 5 minutes till playtime (and there’s cake in the staffroom)!

As each class comprises at least thirty little individuals with their own ‘needs’, it is simply a necessity to have someone to share the slog of the incessant behaviour challenges that arise daily.

Enjoying it together!

But it is most certainly not all about enduring the negative together! The children get two adults praising their efforts, applauding their performances and sharing their successes. As a teacher you have someone to share the sighs of relief, tears of pride and giggles of joy right alongside you. I only hope that I properly expressed my gratitude to all of the TAs I have been privileged to work and that they truly felt valued and appreciated. I couldn’t have taught as well without them and the children we cared for would not have learned so well, or felt so loved.

The future of class based TAs

I know there can be difficulties with the teacher/TA relationship from both perspectives. I know I’ve been very, very lucky. But I do worry that, with impending cuts to the education budget, the old proposals about cutting TA hours will rear its ugly head again. What if schools cannot afford class-based TAs simply due to lack of funds? The other concern is that money will come with government prescribed restrictions about how it can be spent, thereby restricting who TAs can work with based on their particular statistical grouping.

I think it is hugely important to acknowledge how important TAs are to our teachers’ development, as well as to the children’s progress; to truly value their importance within a class ‘family’ and the whole school community. This realisation solidifies the resolve to fight for their continued existence. Long live the class-based TA – our children and their teachers need them!


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