Working with classroom assistants: the dos and the don’ts

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I had the pleasure to talk about working with classroom assistants at the IATEFL YLTSIG web conference that was attended by like-minded professionals from over 50 countries. The 3-day event had an impressive lineup of speakers and it was an absolute privilege to be included as one of them. Giving a talk instead of a workshop was a first for me and as nervous as I was, I felt that this topic deserves to be talked about on the international stage. If you would like to watch the session, the video is available together with all the other amazing sessions at the YLTSIG’s YouTube channel.

Participants’ responses to what CAs are called in their contexts

In this talk I explored the roles and responsibilities of teachers (Ts) and classroom assistants (CAs), and the ways in which they can effectively collaborate to support student learning. The talk was structured into three main parts:

  1. What the relevant research says
  2. What the affected parties say
  3. The dos and the don’ts of this collaboration

You can read the summary of the most important points below.

The research

The DISS study by Blatchford et al. published in 2009 found that CA support often had a negative impact on pupils’ academic progress. The researchers attributed this to decisions about how, where, and when CAs were deployed. Therefore, it’s important to carefully consider how CAs are utilised:

  • allocate them to those who need them the most,
  • ensure teachers are utilizing them to their full potential,
  • and provide necessary training to ALL staff.

Another research by Bosanquet and Radford found that CAs may over-support learners, leading to ‘learned helplessness.’ As teachers, it’s important to consider what role CAs should play in the classroom and when to step back to allow pupils to try to do the work on their own. My own personal experience of providing EAL support in mainstream classrooms also suggests that this applies to any support staff, and care should be taken to ensure that learners are not overly reliant on their support person.

What the affected parties say

Reading about the research mentioned earlier made me want to explore the relationship between Ts and CAs in the EFL context, in order to better understand how they work together to support student learning. By conducting a short informal questionnaire and observations, I hoped to gain insights into any challenges and successes in this collaboration and I was particularly interested in what each side considers as useful and helpful in the learning and teaching process, as well as what they perceive as hindering.

Here is what participants said:

The teachers

The importance of effective communication and clear expectations were frequently mentioned by teachers as critical for successful collaboration with CAs. They emphasized the need for regular communication, particularly prior to the start of the lessons, to ensure that CAs are aware of the goals and objectives. Despite the importance placed on communication, the DISS study found that teachers often do not have allocated planning or feedback time with their CAs.

In addition to communication, teachers also highlighted the importance of providing relevant training for CAs to enable them to perform to their full potential. They felt that the professional development needs of CAs were often overlooked, resulting in a lack of skills and knowledge that could be utilized to support student learning. Many teachers also emphasized the importance of respectful and courteous communication with CAs. Teamwork was also commonly identified as an important aspect of the teacher-CA collaboration.

The classroom assistants

CAs also highlighted the importance of communication and clear expectations in their collaboration with teachers. They emphasized the need for teachers to provide information about what is going to happen in a lesson, so that they feel prepared and can effectively support student learning. CAs also expressed a desire to be part of a team and to have their opinions and contributions valued. They want to feel useful to both the teacher and the students, and to be aware of their role in the classroom. The uncertainty of their job and the time taken up by certain tasks were also mentioned as challenges.

The DISS study found that CAs work more hours than they are contracted to on a regular basis. This is likely due to the ad-hoc tasks and responsibilities that they are assigned, which can take up a significant amount of time. Teachers and school leaders need to carefully consider the tasks that CAs are asked to do and to ensure that they are not overburdened. This will enable them to better support student learning and to be more effective in their role.

The dos and the don’ts

Effective communication is crucial for successful teacher-CA collaboration, and this includes discussing the lesson before it starts, clearly communicating expectations, and debriefing afterwards. The more involved CAs are in the planning, execution, and reflection of the lesson, the better they are able to support student learning. Building a strong working relationship between teachers and CAs is key, and this can be achieved through getting to know each other and identifying and utilizing each other’s strengths. Clear and open communication is essential for establishing a strong and effective working relationship that benefits both the teachers and the students.

Check out the gallery below to see more ideas for establishing successful collaboration within the academic team:

Conclusion: The ultimate paradox

The biggest finding of my informal study was a paradox: even though CAs are appraised on how well they support student learning, 50% of the CAs surveyed defined their role as supporting the teacher. This has important implications for their role and performance evaluations.

  1. CAs see their primary role as supporting the teacher, whereas teachers and school leaders consider their primary role as supporting student learning.
  2. This perception can affect their performance evaluations and job security, as appraisals are tied to opportunities for promotion and potential for receiving increments.
  3. This paradox may be a result of unclear communication about expectations from teachers and school leaders.

So academic managers reading this post, please advocate for more clarity around the role and expectations of CAs, to ensure that they are able to effectively support student learning and for them to be fairly appraised.

Further reading

Blatchford, et al., Deployment and Impact of Support Staff Study, 2009, London, UK.

Bosanquet, et al., The Teaching Assistant’s Guide to Effective Interaction, 2021, London, UK.

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