Teachers & teaching assistants: Eight principles of effective working partnerships

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
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Effective working between teachers & teaching assistants are vital. Sara Alston considers eight key principles to emerge from recent snapshot research of what makes effective teacher-TA working partnerships

The role of the teaching assistant is both controversial and often under-considered in schools. Teaching assistants entered the school workforce by stealth and their role is continuing to develop without planning, often in response to policy decisions and events that have little to do with their role.

These started with the Warnock Report (1978) on SEN inclusion in mainstream schools and the growing concerns, in the 1980s and 1990s, about teaching retention and workload.

The responses initiated a gradual move from parent helpers and ancillary staff, supporting with practical tasks and occasionally hearing children read, to today’s professional teaching assistant workforce.

Due to the organic nature of their growth, teaching assistant roles have developed in different ways in different places. This is reflected in the range of job titles given to those undertaking support roles in classrooms and the lack of standardisation in approach to the expectations of teaching assistants and the teachers working with them. This is exacerbated by a lack of training for either teaching assistants or teachers on how to work together.

The 2009 DISS study (Deployment and Impact of Support Staff ) and the MITA project – Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants – questioned the impact of teaching assistants on children’s learning. The research identified that the key difficulties were related to teaching assistant preparedness, deployment and practice. They placed the responsibility for these with school leaders, yet the majority of decisions regarding teaching assistants and their roles occur within the classroom and are made by class teachers.

Despite the on-going work from MITA and more recent guidance from the Education Endowment Foundation (Sharples et al, 2018), there has in my experience been little change in preparedness or deployment for many teaching assistants. Their primary relationships within the school continue to be with the children and teachers they work with.

Without consistent training for teachers or teaching assistants, the effectiveness of many teaching assistants’ practice is dependent on their relationship with the classroom teacher.

In December, I conducted a very unscientific piece of research on Twitter asking teachers and teaching assistants about their working relationships. There was a wide range of responses. Most confirmed the view that a good teaching assistant was worth their weight in gold and acts as a “safety net, sounding board and sanity-saver”.

Many spoke of the positive impact of teaching assistants and their excellent relationships. This was in part due to the self-selecting nature of those responding and the public nature of the forum. The stories of negative relationships were mostly shared through direct messages.

Even so, a number of key themes emerged. In each there was an underlying tension which pointed to the difficulties of making this working relationship successful in supporting children’s learning, rather than just the teacher.

1, Importance of partnership and friendship

The majority of the respondents spoke about the importance of working together, of partnership and friendship. The teaching assistants wanted teachers to share the load and admit if they felt ill or overwhelmed, for example, so that they could support them. At the same time, they were clear that they wanted to be treated as equals and not as a dog’s body. Both teachers and teaching assistants spoke of friendships established in the classroom that have lasted over many years.

2, Sharing planning

One teaching assistant summed up the issues of sharing planning: “We didn’t plan the lesson, it’s not as obvious to us.” This was a reoccurring theme. For a teaching assistant to be able to follow planning, they need to be able to see, share and understand it.

As identified in the MITA and DISS projects, teaching assistants’ lack of preparedness was seen by all as having a negative impact on the effectiveness of their work. Yet, teaching assistants were not given time to read planning, even when it was shared with them. The teachers often complained that their teaching assistant turned up with the children. Many were learning the lessons alongside the children and then being expected to respond and differentiate “on the hoof”.

All too often, time to share planning depended on the willingness of both parties to find time outside of the teaching assistant’s directed hours. The willingness to do this was often rooted in friendship, not in time identified and set aside by the school.

3, Feeling valued and respected.

Many respondents spoke of the importance of teaching assistants feeling valued and respected. They identified difficulties when teachers did not make teaching assistants feel appreciated and part of the team leading to a lack of co-operation and engagement.

There was a real issue of teachers’ acknowledgement and understanding of teaching assistants’ roles, including things like respecting their breaks and recognising when they gave time beyond their hours, and not just expecting this.

Teaching assistants said that they wanted teachers to ask their opinions, give feedback and listen to their views. They wanted to know when they had done their job well, but not be “praised like children”.

4, Playing to their strengths

Both teaching assistants and teachers spoke of the importance of teaching assistants using their initiative and being given opportunities to do so. In the successful relationships, several respondents referred to being able to “play to their strengths”, with teaching assistants taking responsibility for particular areas, including circle time in primary schools or music.

This allowed teachers time to observe and work with individuals while enabling teaching assistants to share and develop their skills and feel valued. A number of teaching assistants spoke of their frustration of watching a teacher deliver badly something they felt that they could do well.

Equally, teachers spoke of their exasperation at teaching assistants “taking over” and even spoiling their lessons when they offered views or engaged in what they felt was an inappropriate way.

5, Differentiation and support for children with SEN

There was clear concern from both teaching assistants and teachers about how differentiation should be delivered and who was responsible for it. There were recurring concerns raised about a lack of time to share planning and give feedback, subject knowledge and understanding of individual children and their needs. The difficulties of managing this successfully were clear and both groups felt it reduced the impact and effectiveness of differentiation.

Some teaching assistants spoke of feeling isolated working one to one, particularly with a high needs child and poorly differentiated work. They felt that the responsibility for the child’s education and making the curriculum accessible was devolved to them. Not only did many not feel confident, equipped or supported to do this, but they also felt that the teachers didn’t know or engage with these children.

Equally, several teaching assistants commented that they spent longer with the children and were often out on the playground with them so knew them and what motivated them better than the teachers. They wanted their expertise on individual children to be acknowledged and to have opportunities to share this with the teachers.

However, several teachers referred to teaching assistants again “taking over” and “dominating” their children, making it difficult for the teacher to work with and get to know those pupils. This is a significant tension impacting on the effectiveness of support for children with special needs.

6, The age gap

A number of respondents identified issues to do with an age gap between the teacher and teaching assistant. Many saw this as an advantage, often with a younger teaching assistant helping a teacher to understand the children’s interests and concerns.

However, several NQTs and younger teachers spoke of their concerns around directing an older and more experienced teaching assistant. One felt that their older teaching assistant had tried to act like their mother, which undermined their ability to manage the class.

7, Lack of stability

Several teaching assistants spoke of the impact of a lack of job security and being moved around the school, often at short notice. This meant that they were constantly trying to renegotiate their relationships with children and teachers. They were very aware that this reduced their effectiveness, willingness and commitment to engage in the school.

8, Cheap cover

Both teachers and teaching assistants voiced concerns about teaching assistants being used as cheap cover. Particular concerns were voiced that teaching assistants were being held to the same standards as teachers, but without the training or time to prepare the lessons they were expected to deliver. Further, often teaching assistants had a lower level of support when delivering lessons as they could not support themselves and were not replaced when they became the primary deliverers of teaching.


The issues surrounding giving time to communicate and build relationships threaded through almost every response. The lack of time and break-down of relationships were the biggest barriers to teaching assistants and teachers working together successfully. As one respondent put it: “The key is clarity of communication and mutual trust.”

Where teaching assistants are having a positive impact, this seems to be where issues of preparedness, deployment and practice are circumvented by good personal relationships between the teacher and teaching assistant. This relationship then supported the necessary communication and created the willingness and ability to make time for it.

However, it is not reasonable to expect strong personal relationships to be the underlying basis for the provision of effective teaching and support in the classroom.

As one respondent commented, being a teaching assistant is “low paid so the job needs to be rewarding in other ways”. A good relationship is one way, but it is not enough. Teaching assistants need time, respect and training and teachers need training and support to utilise teaching assistants effectively. We can’t depend on friendships to make this key classroom relationship work to support learning.

  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Visit www.seainclusion.co.uk. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via https://bit.ly/2EY0wNj

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