Teaching Assistants, also called Learning Support Assistants, should go to Heaven first. Of this I am quite sure. Not just because of all the tremendous work that they do, but because they do not appear to be valued here on planet earth.
For many students with special educational needs, Teaching Assistants have provided the lifeline to surviving the school experience. Yet, it has become all too fashionable over the last few years to claim that Teaching Assistants actually hinder the progress of students with SEN. Many articles have implied that students with SEN were being short changed as the interaction between students and Teaching Assistants was ‘lower in quality’ than with teachers.
It is reported that Teaching Assistants are more concerned with task completion than with learning.Teachers, it is suggested, are more likely to ‘open up’ pupil talk while Teaching Assistants ‘closedown talk’ to get the job done. Furthermore, it is claimed that Teaching Assistants are all too interested in the soft skills such as confidence building, developing motivation and changing a student’s disposition toward learning.
Therefore, in the report for the National College of School Leadership by Webster and Blachford entitled ‘Teaching Assistants: Role, Contribution and Value for Money’ it was good to see some sensible balance restored. Here the findings suggest that any of the studies which reported the negative relationship between Teaching Assistant support and pupil progress was not in fact the fault of the Teaching Assistant. Rather, it was the organisational factors, such as employment and deployment, over which the TA’s had little control, that explained the impact of the findings. In other words, it was the decisions made by school leaders about the use of Teaching Assistants that ultimately determined the outcome.
This does not go far enough. Over the years I have seen that most Teaching Assistants have a great deal of life experience and specific knowledge of the local community. This powerful combination results in the ability to form positive rapport and relationships with students who may feel disengaged and disillusioned at school.
During my observation visits to classrooms I have often found myself with teachers who are frustrated with a student’s lack of progress or the behaviour of a specific pupil, resulting in their losing their temper and shouting at a student. On most occasions I will catch the Teaching Assistant’s eye and find a knowing look suggesting that there was a different way to handle that situation. Most Teaching Assistants that I have met possess very good people skills while some teachers with quality subject expertise, do not.
To describe giving someone confidence and motivation as providing ‘soft skills’ implies that these issues are less important than learning facts and figures. In my opinion, these are critical skills for all students especially those with SEN.
Furthermore, I have known many Teaching Assistants who support students in a variety of ways outside of the classroom. This includes; helping with day to day organisation, teaching time keeping strategies, nutrition options not to mention all of the additional pastoral support they provide. I even knew one Teaching Assistant who washed a pupil’s sports kit when support systems at home where not in place.
It is time we stood up and valued all of our Teaching Assistants for the magnificent job they do. Their motivation reaches far beyond any fiscal recompense or meagre recognition. They do it because they care about the children and young people who are struggling within our school systems.
That is why Teaching Assistants should jump the queue and go to heaven first.
Happy Christmas to all.