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Working with teaching assistants

‘TAs should not be used as an informal teaching resource for low attaining pupils.’

Education Endowment Foundation, 2015

Topics on this page:

  • Who are teaching assistants
  • Deployment of teaching assistants
  • Working with TAs in your classroom
  • Making the best use of a TA
  • Reading

Who are teaching assistants

Teaching assistants (TAs) are adults that assist teachers in the classroom. They are also known as learning support assistants. Their responsibilities differ between schools but in secondary schools their main role is usually to help students access the curriculum, to facilitate independent learning and to promote inclusion.

However, most TAs have an extremely varied role, and their tasks and responsibilities can change between classes, key stages and schools. In some schools, TAs are employed for specific roles, e.g. in literacy, numeracy, SEND and they are used to support pupils with particular individual needs. 

TAs may be attached to a subject department, although this is not very common in geography. You should be clear that TAs are assistants, not qualified teachers.

Many TAs have not had any formal training, but may bring many years of experience to their role. Some are graduates who go on to train as teachers.

Deployment of teaching assistants

An increase in the numbers of TAs in English schools followed the greater inclusion of pupils with SEND into mainstream schools. TAs also work with students from low-income backgrounds, funded through the pupil premium.

In many secondary settings, TAs are assigned to individual students with SEND to give one-to-one support. These TAs have a crucial role to help individual students to achieve higher academic standards, achieve greater autonomy or just to feel part of the school community. They will accompany those students to each of their lessons. This is most likely the time when you will see a TA in a geography classroom. Other TAs may be deployed to support the whole class or groups within the class.

TAs may also provide administrative support, technical support or be involved in pastoral care and student mentoring. Other roles include supporting on school trips, creating displays and supervising during break time.

Students often look at a TA as a person to turn to, who will listen to them and help. They can also can model for students ‘how to learn’. TAs offer emotional support to those who find learning difficult because of speech and language barriers, social deprivation or special educational needs and disability. Teachers are generally very positive about the contribution of TAs and the increased attention and support for learning they give to students who struggle because this has a direct impact on their learning.

Working with TAs in your classroom

TAs work with the school’s special educational needs coordinator (SENCo) and other specialists. Together they provide specialist input to support teachers to help them to appropriately modify their curriculum or pedagogy to meet individual students’ needs, as set out in their education, health and care plan or individual education plan.

When you plan a lesson you should consider the specific role of the TA in that lesson. For example, they can help to:

  • Raise the performance of individual students
  • Provide scaffolding for individuals
  • Assist students to develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning
  • Work with a group of students on a collaborative task, using structured interventions
  • Support the diversity of learning needs in the class
  • Coach a group of students through a specific task
  • Oversee higher ability/independent learners to ensure they stay on task and help them to source resources
  • Assist in managing behaviour
  • Have a safeguarding responsibility e.g. on fieldwork.

A TA is unlikely to have specialist geography knowledge and you will need to brief them about the content of a lesson so they can provide students with the necessary subject support. It is your responsibility to ensure that TAs know about the lesson content and have clear instructions about the expectations you have of them and the students. 

The TA will not know what you want them to do unless you communicate your plans to them. Put yourself in their position: how would you feel if you tried to work out what to do only by listening to a lesson introduction?

TAs should add value to what teachers do, not replace them. Adopt some of these actions to help a TA to maximise their contribution to the learning in the lesson:

  • Give the TA a copy of your lesson plan. In particular they need to know the concepts, facts and information being taught, the skills to be practised and the intended learning outcomes.
  • Provide clear and specific directions for the TA role during the lesson/sequence of lessons.
  • Identify the key students they will work with.
  • Share with them any adapted resources, or any extension work if they are working with the more able.
  • Discuss specific aspects of the lesson content where you anticipate support will be required.
  • Share the expectations/success criteria you have for a group/individual they will be working with.
  • Clearly convey to the TA that student engagement and thinking are more important than task completion.

Making the best use of a TA

This example of a teacher-TA agreement template could be used as a guide. Make sure you involve the TA from the start of the lesson. During the lesson introduction they should focus on the students, not you. 

During the main part of the lesson, they need to know where in the classroom to work with a student/group and how to locate the resources they need. Use their assistance to help the lesson to progress smoothly, for example to help with resources, place themselves to oversee any misbehaviour problem, or help a student who is finding it difficult to comprehend.

If you regularly work with the same TA you should be proactive to develop their knowledge and skills in the particular geographical topic. This will allow them to better support students and focus on developing understanding rather than being over-concerned with task completion. Inexperienced TAs can sometimes ‘spoon feed’ students and encourage a culture of ‘dependency’; as a teacher you need to ensure that this does not happen and the TA shares your high expectations so they challenge students.

All students in your classroom should have their full share of your attention. If a student is always supported by a TA it can mean that they rarely get access to you and the high quality subject teaching you can provide. Consider ways to ensure that you have opportunities for structured, subject interventions with those pupils. One way to do this is for the TA to provide, on some occasions, more general assistance in the classroom.

Many TAs appreciate working with different types of students, not just students with SEND. This can give you, as a subject specialist, access to the supported student at a particular time so they get the benefit of subject expertise rather than only the general support from the TA. It can also reduce the supported student’s isolation and ensure they get student-student interaction in a group activity.

The TA should always take their lead from the teacher in the classroom, but that does not mean that they shouldn’t use their own initiative and respond to situations sensibly. They work for the SEND coordinator in the school and you should respect this when you discuss their role in your lesson. You should expect TAs to feedback to you on the individual students – or a group – that they have been working with.

Bromley (2018) suggests that the secret to fostering a successful working relationship with other adults in your classroom is consistency, communication, clarity and connections. Read the article to find out more.

You need to spend time on developing a good working relationship between yourself, as a teacher, and the education support staff in the school. The TAs will probably have considerably more years of experience than you and will know the school/students. Always acknowledge this and take care to deal with them in a professional manner and ask their advice about individual students or strategies they have found to be effective. You need to draw on their knowledge and experience of individual students.

To support a TA’s own professional development, find out about any specific interests they may have in geography, or curriculum experiences, e.g. in literacy, and build on this in your lessons. An increasing number of TAs are graduates and have many strengths you can draw on.

If the geography department has a specific teaching assistant allocated to support them, have an informal meeting to find out about them and how they can best contribute to your lessons. Do not forget to give them feedback after a lesson and listen to their insights on individual students that can be very valuable. 

Discuss what went well and what less so and plan together what to do in subsequent lessons. Be positive and constructive and help the TA to see the bigger picture of what you are trying to achieve.

Reading