Effective roles for teaching assistants in whole-class work

Written by: Philip Hughes | Published:
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The teaching assistant’s role in intervention or group work is well understood, but what impact can they have on whole-class teaching and learning? Philip Hughes offers some advice

In the present climate of school budget reductions and with increasing pressures being placed on schools to meet ever-more demanding levels of achievement, the impact made by teaching assistants is a keenly discussed topic of conversation.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is clear: teaching assistants are not typically adding to pupils’ attainment, although if deployed well they have the potential to do so. How, then, can we maximise fully the potential of our teaching assistant workforce? How can we ensure that there is a positive impact on standards, particularly in the context of whole-class work?

Defining the role

Long gone are the days where teaching assistants functioned primarily as a teacher’s assistant. Resource management and classroom organisation are still parts of the job, yet it is the learning-centred aspects of a teaching assistant’s role which have developed over the years.

In its research recommendations for making best use of teaching assistants, the EEF is clear about the ways in which they can work with small groups of children and effectively lead interventions away from the classroom. However, the recommendations made by the EEF do not offer guidance for schools on how to fully maximise the significant contribution a teaching assistant makes during whole-class teaching and learning. It is this element of the role which we are working hard to develop at Crab Lane and Crumpsall Lane Primary Schools.

Whole-class teaching and learning

I regularly see teaching assistants deployed in a range of effective and creative ways beyond intervention – working with individuals within a lesson, teaching a higher level concept to a small group of able children, or setting off a group of children with special needs on a differentiated task. These approaches can all make a positive difference to pupil attainment.

There are, however, times when the whole class works together and it is during these learning opportunities that the impact of the teaching assistant is too often diminished. When the teacher is in full flow, it is easy for the teaching assistant to take a passive role and effectively receive the lesson from the teacher along with the children.

Clearly, this is not a good use of their time and in developing the teaching assistant’s role during whole-class work, we are aiming to further increase the impact they make. Recently, we have introduced three simple ways in which this can be achieved:

  1. Teaching assistant to model an activity alongside the teacher.
  2. Teaching assistant to model an activity instead of the teacher.
  3. Teaching assistant to lead feedback from children after an activity.

Modelling alongside the teacher

In all subject areas, effective modelling of tasks by adults underpins the success or failure of pupils’ collaborative and independent work. Ensuring that pupils are clear about both what is expected in terms of content and how it is to be laid out are fundamental requirements of a good lesson.

Does it always have to be the teacher leading the modelling? Absolutely not, yet too often this is what I observe in the classroom. Our aim is to empower teaching assistants by insisting that they become part of the modelling process, alongside the teacher.

In the best lessons, I see teachers and teaching assistants working together to outline what is required of pupils before a collaborative task: the modelling of language structures, co-operative learning behaviours, basic courtesy and of course good learning content are part of this joint teaching approach.

By working in this way, the teaching assistant becomes fully involved in the learning and the children are given the chance to observe effective learning interplay. Children are much more likely to succeed in their paired or group work, if they are shown what to do and how to do it.

Modelling instead of the teacher

If the children are expected to work independently, then it is empowering for teaching assistants to lead the modelling of an activity at times. In the best lessons, I see this happen in a variety of ways, such as the setting out of calculations in maths, recording of character feelings in English, self-portrait in art, and questions to ask about an investigation in science.

Opportunities to model learning expectations occur throughout the day and by planning in explicit opportunities for teaching assistants to lead small sections of whole-class work, their role is instantly transformed from passive observer to active educator.

Significantly, it is an approach that benefits all: the children are given the opportunity to hear a different voice/style of explanation, the teaching assistant is empowered to make a meaningful contribution to teaching and learning, and the teacher creates an opportunity to view their class from a different perspective.

Leading feedback after an activity

Post-activity, it is common practice in the classroom for children to share their thoughts and responses to a set of questions posed or to a task set. In my experience, it is almost exclusively the teacher who I see leading post-activity feedback, whether it be directing questions, passing from one child to the next or evaluating and rephrasing a child’s contribution.

It is in everyone’s interests for teaching assistants to be actively involved in this process and this can be achieved by providing them the opportunity to do so. For example, teachers can alternate the question-asking with their teaching assistant, they can allow the teaching assistant to record children’s responses on the flipchart or rephrase a child’s response for clarity. In this way, teaching assistants are once more empowered to make a positive contribution to teaching and learning.

Play to the strengths of the team

Of course, these approaches are not without their potential barriers, most notably in the form of the subject knowledge and confidence of teaching assistants. At Crab Lane and Crumpsall Lane, we are addressing any lack of confidence or subject knowledge by offering training opportunities.

For example, arranging for teaching assistants to observe more confident peers is invaluable CPD. Additionally, we have asked teachers to acknowledge teaching assistants who are less confident by providing them with the opportunity to lead very small chunks of whole-class input, such as telling the class what they will be doing next, telling them the order of the day, asking a question or celebrating somebody’s behaviour.

Have I missed anything?

Ultimately, we are aiming to give teaching assistants a legitimate learning voice in the classroom. As outlined, this depends on teaching assistant confidence and competence. Equally, though, it is dependent on teachers providing opportunities for their teaching assistants to be involved in whole-class learning.

The three ways I have mentioned already will enable this to happen. However, we know that for the majority of the time, it will be the teacher leading whole-class sessions and so we have introduced a very simple yet effective way of making sure teaching assistants have a voice at these times too: teachers should ask them: “Have I missed anything?”

Many teaching assistants have a wealth of experience in the classroom and may well spot something which their teacher has failed to mention or to explain to the class. In recent training at both schools, many teaching assistants acknowledged that, unless they had a secure and long-standing relationship with their teacher, they would not feel comfortable interrupting the lesson to point out something that has been missed.

It is quite clear that, in the interests of children’s learning, teaching assistants need to be given the chance to voice their observations of the learning during whole-class sessions and by the teacher asking “have I missed anything?” or a similar question, the opportunity is provided.

However, a word of warning: it is quite possible that, most of the time, the answer to this question will be “no”. This is not helpful! We have shared with all our teaching assistants the expectation that,

if the answer is indeed “no”, they can use the opportunity to contribute from a behaviour perspective, instead of a learning one. For example:

  • No, you’ve not missed anything and I would just like to say how well Billy has listened to you explain that.
  • No, that was really clear Miss and I’m so impressed with everybody’s focus.

If the answer is “yes”, then this is the perfect opportunity for teaching assistants to make a contribution to teaching and learning:

  • Yes, can I just remind everyone to make sure that...
  • Yes, remember yesterday that some of you struggled with... Well today, make sure you...
  • Yes, can you just show us how to ... again to make sure everybody is really clear?

Teachers do not want to send children off to complete a task and then have to stop them almost immediately because they realise something has not been explained or discussed clearly enough. We are creating a mechanism to enable all teaching assistants to use their voice without feeling uncomfortable and are excited about the benefits this will bring to clarity of teaching, teaching assistant engagement and pupil outcomes.

A changing landscape

The financial and academic pressures on schools mean that levels of accountability are increasing all the time. We are all working hard to ensure that all members of our teaching team – including teaching assistants – are empowered to make a significant contribution to teaching and learning, including during whole-class work.

The teaching assistant role is incredibly varied and already operates effectively in a number of ways, as outlined by the EEF. By developing a whole-school ethos that teaching assistants will be expected to contribute to teaching within lessons, we are adding more tools to their ever-expanding tool belt. As a result, we are confident that they will be empowered to make a positive impact on pupils’ attainment when the whole class is learning together. 

  • Philip Hughes is an associate headteacher with the North Manchester Primary Federation.

Further information

For an overview of the Education Endowment Foundation’s research into the impact and effective deployment of teaching assistants and teaching assistant-led initiatives, visit https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/resources/teaching-learning-toolkit/teaching-assistants/

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