The four Cs of effective teaching assistants

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Professional collaboration between teachers and teaching assistants is crucial to high-quality lessons and teaching. Matt Bromley outlines his four Cs for creating outstanding working relationships

For teachers, the classroom is their kingdom – it is their domain and they are responsible for building a positive learning environment in which their pupils can grow and succeed. Often, however, teachers must share their turf with another adult, usually a teaching assistant. How well the teacher and teaching assistant manage their relationship is crucial if pupils are to be engaged, challenged and make progress.

So, what is the secret to fostering a successful working relationship between a teacher and teaching assistant? I have developed the four Cs to help – they are: consistency, communication, clarity and connections.

Consistency

Although it may sound authoritarian and undemocratic, teachers must remember that it is their classroom and they are in control of it. Of course, in most cases the teacher and teaching assistant will get on well, have the same high standards and be aligned in their determination that all pupils succeed. But, if there are differences, the teacher will need to make clear to the other adult that they expect them to follow their lead when it comes to supporting learning and managing behaviour.

As everyone knows, a child will ask one adult and if they do not get the answer they want they will go to another adult and ask the same question, hoping for a different answer. Children are good at “divide and conquer” and will employ this in the classroom if they think they can get a cigarette paper between the teacher and teaching assistant. If the teaching assistant is more lenient than the teacher, the teacher’s authority will be undermined and “but they let me do it” will become a familiar refrain.

Consistency does not happen by accident: teachers must cultivate it by being explicit with other adults in the room about what they expect and about what sanctions apply to those pupils who do not meet those expectations. Often, these will be set out in the whole school behaviour policy and known to everyone, but sometimes the teacher will – by necessity or desire – have their own rules or ways of managing behaviour and it is important that they articulate this to other adults. It is the teacher’s responsibility – not the teaching assistant’s – to make their expectations clear.

As well as being consistent in the way behaviour is managed, teachers must also be consistent in the ways in which they support pupils with their learning. For example, if the teacher expects pupils to struggle independently with challenges before seeking support – perhaps using the “3b4me” approach whereby pupils must first consult their brain, their book and a buddy before asking for help – then the teaching assistant must also support this.

If the teaching assistant proffers answers on first asking, they will undermine the teacher’s attempts to develop independent learners. As before, it is always the teacher’s responsibility to articulate their ways of working with the teaching assistant and to reinforce these through their words and actions.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – based on the work of Bosanquet, Radford and Webster (2016) – proposes a hierarchy of teaching assistant activities that promote pupils’ autonomy and independence.

They suggest teaching assistants start with self-scaffolding, which involves the greatest level of pupil independence, then move on to prompting if pupils require more help, followed by clueing, modelling and then correcting.

  • Self-scaffolding: Teaching assistants observe, giving pupils time for processing and thinking. Self-scaffolders can: plan how to approach a task, problem-solve as they go and review how they approached a task.
  • Prompting: Teaching assistants provide prompts when pupils are unable to self-scaffold. Prompts encourage pupils to draw on their own knowledge, but refrain from specifying a strategy. The aim is to nudge pupils into deploying a self-scaffolding technique. For example, what do you need to do first? What is your plan? You can do this!
  • Clueing: Often pupils know the strategies or knowledge required to solve a problem, but find it difficult to call them mind. Clues worded as questions provide a hint in the right direction. The answer must contain a key piece of information to help pupils work out how to move forward. Always start with a small clue.
  • Modelling: Prompts and clues can be ineffective when pupils encounter a task that requires a new skill or strategy. Teaching assistants, as confident and competent experts, can model while pupils actively watch and listen. Pupils should try the same step for themselves immediately afterwards.
  • Correcting: Correcting involves providing answers and requires no independent thinking. Occasionally it is appropriate to do this, however, teaching assistants should always aim to model and encourage pupils to apply new skills or knowledge first.

Communication

Teachers must ensure that they regularly communicate with their teaching assistant about the lesson content. For example, it is important – if the teaching assistant is to be an effective additional resource in the room – that they know what the learning objectives are, what pupils will be expected to do, and how they will demonstrate their learning by the end of the lesson.

It is important, too, that teaching assistants know what excellence looks like – what the intended outcomes are and how to attain highly.

Communication must be frequent and formal. In other words, it must not be left to a chance meeting in the staffroom or corridor; rather, the teacher must carve-out a regular slot on the timetable when they and their teaching assistant can meet and run through the scheme of work. If the teaching assistant does not know what the learning objectives are and what pupils are expected to achieve, then how can they possibly be expected to help?

As a rule of thumb, it is useful if the teacher communicates the following to their teaching assistant before each lesson or sequence of lessons:

  • The learning objectives and intended outcomes (what success will look like at the end of the lesson/sequence and why it matters in terms of the bigger picture).
  • The key concepts, knowledge and skills being taught (what pupils need to know and do by the end of the lesson/sequence).
  • The skills and behaviours – including learning behaviours such as metacognition and self-regulation – to be learned, applied, practised or expanded upon during the lesson/sequence.
  • The ways in which pupils’ progress will be assessed and the ways in which feedback will be given and acted upon in the lesson/sequence.

Clarity

As well as communicating the learning objectives and intended outcomes, the class teacher must also make clear what role they want the teaching assistant to play in the lesson.

Often teaching assistants are used as an informal teaching resource for lower-performing pupils or pupils with SEND. However, this approach has been proven to be ineffective. Instead, teaching assistants should be used to add value to what teachers do rather than replace the teacher.

Although it is common practice, and has gone unquestioned for so long, it now seems obvious that if teaching assistants work with a lower-performing pupil while the teacher teaches the rest of the class, then those pupils most in need of quality teaching miss out and the disadvantage gap widens. If the teaching assistant does have an instructional role to play in the classroom, then it is important they supplement, rather than replace, the class teacher.

To be clear, the expectation should be that the needs of all pupils are addressed, first and foremost, through “quality first teaching” from the class teacher – every pupil should have equal access to their expertise. As such, the teacher should try and organise their classroom so that the pupils who struggle most have as much time with them as all the others.

Where the teaching assistant is working individually with lower-performing pupils, the focus should be on retaining access to quality first teaching from the class teacher, with the teaching assistant delivering brief, but intensive, structured interventions. Sometimes, it might be that the teacher works with lower-performing pupils and those in most need while the teaching assistant supports the rest of the class.

Whether the teaching assistant is working with individual pupils or small groups, or with the majority of the class, their role is to help move the learning forward and support pupils to become independent learners.

This might involve them:

  • Remodelling or re-explaining.
  • Scribing for the teacher on the board or scribing for a pupil.
  • Reinforcing instructions and checking understanding.
  • Helping pupils to use practical equipment or resources.
  • Encouraging discussion and participation.
  • Questioning pupils to challenge them in their learning.
  • Assessing pupils’ learning through observation, questioning and discussion, and checking and clarifying misconceptions.
  • Helping to make links between learning in the lesson and other contexts.
  • Supporting pupils to identify their next steps in learning and what they need to do to achieve them.

Connections

If teaching assistants or other adults teach pupils by means of additional interventions such as one-to-one or small group withdrawal sessions, it is important that the class teacher works with them to make explicit connections between learning from everyday classroom teaching and these structured interventions.

Interventions are often quite separate from classroom activities and yet interventions only work if learning in these withdrawal sessions is consistent with, and extends, work inside the classroom and that pupils understand the links between them.

It should not be assumed that pupils can consistently identify and make sense of these links on their own. This involves regular communication between the class teacher and their teaching assistant, both before and after each lesson or intervention session.

Useful questions

Class teachers may find the following questions useful when reflecting on how well they currently work with their teaching assistant:

  • How much direction do you provide to the teaching assistant when they are in your lesson? Do you establish clear expectations right from the start?
  • How do you ensure the teaching assistant knows exactly what you want them to be doing when they are working with a pupil/group of pupils?
  • Does the teaching assistant always work with the pupils with SEN? If so, could they work with a different group or oversee the rest of the class while you focus on the pupils with additional needs?
  • If the teaching assistant is working with a pupil with SEN, do they encourage the pupil to be independent by providing initial input then moving away from them?
  • How do you gather feedback about the pupils’ progress from the teaching assistant at the end of a lesson?

Because they’re worth it

According to the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, teaching assistants are costly and have less of an impact on pupil progress than other, cheaper, interventions. However, delve beneath the headline data and you will find that the picture is more nuanced. For example, there is strong evidence that when teachers delegate routine administrative tasks to teaching assistants it allows them to focus more time on teaching, planning and assessment tasks. Teaching assistants have also proven beneficial in terms of reducing teacher workload and improving teachers’ job satisfaction.

Those teachers featured in the EEF evidence-base said that the presence of additional adults in the room helped increase pupils’ attention and supported the learning of pupils who struggled most.

Furthermore, the poor effects related to the use of teaching assistants tend to derive from situations where the teaching assistant has been used poorly or not at all. If teaching assistants are to be used effectively, then they must not be used as an informal teaching resource for lower-performing pupils, thus replacing the teacher and encouraging learned helplessness. Rather, teaching assistants should be used to add value to the teacher and not as a replacement to them.

Further information & resources


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