TPS9: How can I work most effectively with a teaching assistant in my lessons?

#9 in the Teaching Problem –> Solution Series.

The Problem:

The question asked was: How can I work most effectively with a teaching assistant in my lessons?


There are lots of elements to this with big differences between primary -where a TA might work in the same class all the time – and secondary where teachers and TAs don’t always have time to co-plan or even be sure that the TA will be in all the lessons with a certain class. It helps for all concerned to have a shared understanding of the respective roles of a teacher and a TA.

A good place to start is with the recommendations of the EEF report: – click to access and download.

The main practical recommendation classroom practice is the third one:

Use TAs to help pupils develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning:

Research has shown that improving the nature and quality of TAs’ talk to pupils can support the development of independent learning skills, which are associated with improved learning outcomes. TAs should, for example, be trained to avoid prioritising task completion and instead concentrate on helping pupils develop ownership of tasks.

TAs should aim to give pupils the least amount of help first. They should allow sufficient wait time, so pupils can respond to a question or attempt the stage of a task independently. TAs should intervene appropriately when pupils demonstrate they are unable to proceed.

This is useful and gives clear direction about what TA’s should do to support students. However, there’s an issue with the language of ‘use TAs’ if that applies to the teacher ‘using a TA’, rather than a school. In Walkthrus 3, we had a superb entry written for us by Headteachers Ayellet McDonnell & Emma Slade. Our title is ‘Working in Tandem’ which conveys the spirit of partnership. The key elements are shown below:

Two important practical classroom phases are:

During teacher instruction:

  • TAs are in a position to provide valuable feedback on gaps in knowledge, repeated errors and particular pupils’ challenges. 
  • TAs can track agreed learning behaviours ready to feedback to the teacher
    • noting pupils with repeated errors during whiteboard tasks, 
    • pinpointing pupil work for Show Call
    • identifying a common misconception.

It’s excellent to see a teacher-TA partnership where both professionals tag each other – taking turns to invite students to share their answers after cold calling, whiteboards of think-pair-share. That extra pair of eyes is vital alongside the role of giving students confidence to share their answers or using non-verbal cues to notify the teacher that a certain student would be a good choice for selecting an answer – or, to say they’re not quite ready.

On a very practical note, some understanding about when TA and teacher should talk or not talk while the other is talking is helpful. It’s vital for TAs to support students to feel included in class discussions rather than creating a small bubble that actually separates them from everyone else.

During pupil practice:

  • Identify areas of need based on checks for understanding.
  • TAs can support varying groups of pupils so that all can benefit from verbal feedback, moving their learning forward over a sequence of lessons. 
  • While the class teacher supports pupils with the highest need during practice, TAs can track agreed learning objectives, adding value to teacher-led instruction, building on the lesson input, supporting with selected scaffolding leading to independent learning

Again the focus is on supporting students to move towards independence in the way they go about their work, focusing on their learning, not on task completion per se. As ever – that’s easier said than done -but good use of checking for understanding between a TA and a student or small group is a key element in the repertoire.

As our Walkthru and the EEF report reinforce, all of this is best done from the basis of a good shared understanding of the learning objectives for the work in hand – and this requires good routines for communicating that in advance of lessons.

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