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I’m only a TA after all.

“Behind every good teacher is an outstanding TA”

Conversations in pedagogy or education tend to focus on classroom practitioners or leaders. The voices & lived experience of what is often referred to as ‘support staff’ can be neglected. This is not to suggest there isn’t excellent literature on the role of support staff, but it is definitely outweighed by coverage on teachers.

Have been a student, volunteered at a school, become a TA, then Cover Supervisor, to eventually training to teach, I have some experience of the hierarchical nature of education. But I want to focus on the ever-changing and all-encompassing role or a Teaching Assistant (TA). The pastoral, teaching & learning, SEND, safeguarding, behavioural & non-classroom role of a TA is truly remarkable. It deserves recognition.

September 16th is National TA Day. Just reading these remarkable statistics makes us realise how valuable TAs truly are.

Some Statistics

According to the NAHT, as of 2018, there are 263,900 TAs in UK schools. Data from Unison suggests there is now only one TA per 67 pupils. I won’t go into detail but it’s clear that schools, usually down to funding, will aim to lay off their support staff first. ‘Support Staff’ is an umbrella term really that amalgamates TA, Year Lead, Catering Staff, Cleaners, Admin & pretty much all non-teaching personnel. Yet I want to focus on TAs as this huge category is incredibly populated, so part by part, we can discover the experiences of support staff.

What is a TA?

The DofE define a TA as:

Teaching assistants (TAs) as classroom-based staff employed in roles other than instructors, teachers, student and overseas-trained teachers. TAs are also often referred to as cover supervisors, higher-level teaching assistants, learning and language support assistants.

Again, this is an incredibly diverse categorisation. A role of a TA is not set, it’s not exactly a ‘one task at a time’ sort of position. The description by the DofE is very wide-ranging & TAs have incredible responsibilities as a result.

The Secret TA

Robyn is a TA at a primary school. She chose to speak to me because of a throwaway comment from a teacher who said, “You’re a TA, how come you’re tired?”. I’ve aimed to bring light to Robyn’s story.

So I’m employed at TA but everyone seems to think it’s a 9-3 job which is so irritating. I love my job, I love working with students & I know the work we do as TAs helps the school stay afloat. When I left university, I began applied for a TA job. This was in 2009 and I thought I’d go for it because I always wanted to work with kids. We had 20 TAs in our team, each assigned to a department & to particular students. 10 years on, our school has expanded by over 200 students but we only have a 8 TAs. Although I’m the most experienced, I’m still learning on the job.

A typical day?

Get into work, check staff absences, update the cover list, then go to canteen to support our Head in making breakfasts for students.

9am – Scribe for our SEN students.

10am – Cover lesson of absent teacher,

11-11:25 – Supervise our ‘quiet room’ for our more vulnerable students.

11:20-12:30 – Weekly parents meeting; helping organise foodbank collections & translating for parents.

12:30-13:30 – Support canteen staff with lunch & ensure FSM pupils have provisions,

13:30-14:30 – Support school inclusion facility (mainly behaviour),

14:30-15:30 – Assembly/Reading/Intervention or Phonics

15:30-16:30 – Liaising with staff, safeguarding concerns & admin duties.

Robyn went on to explain that she’s a mother of two herself & her salary often means she needs to visit her local foodbank. I was in awe. I literally couldn’t believe the dedication, commitment & skills needed for such a under-paid role. I used to think that my teacher salary was meagre but imagine supporting a family, having a mortgage & paying bills on a TA salary!

Like Robyn, Stacy (pictured) is also a TA who is dedicated to making a difference. Link left at the end of the article.

Role of a TA:

As a graduate myself, I used to think as a TA, my role was simply to facilitate teaching & learning. In my head, I was the ‘second teacher’. My naivety, even to this day didn’t enable me to realise how incredibly wide-ranging the role of a TA us.

TAs are routinely asked to:

•Undertake duties,

•Act as translators,

•Liaise with parents,

•Monitor behaviour,

•Update & maintain SEND records,

•Head behaviour & inclusion facilities,

•Support site staff,

•Work with/cover for canteen staff,

•Complete health & hygiene checks,

•Help teachers prepare for lesson observations,

•Cover PE lessons,

•Attend/Co-plan trips & visits,

•Photocopy resources for departments,

•Lead interventions,

•Organise charity events,

•Do domestic school duties (wash uniforms etc)

•Help with new staff induction.

This list could be absolutely endless! Payscale, the watchdog for salaried jobs in the UK estimate an average TA salary is £13,561. That’s around £1,103 before tax every month. Just look at the amount of roles they have to undertake, many of which they have little training or no qualifications for. That salary is absolutely abysmal!

What can we do as teachers?

Nationally, I would love to employ more TAs, give them real training & safeguard our incredible backbone in schools; support staff. I’m idealistic but let’s focus on what us teacher can do in the classroom to support our TAs. I have four practical tips (not exclusive but let’s start the dialogue).

1. Value your TA – they are here to help! TAs are spies or trying to get in the way. I remember the suspicion that would come my way when I was a TA. Make them feel welcome in your classroom, day hello to them, acknowledge them. I’ve seen teachers ignore TAs, literally denying their existences. Why? You’re missing out on an excellent resource & so are your students!

2. Differentiation – many TAs have an incredible insight into SEND. They know the students better than you do & just because during your PGCE you saw a PowerPoint on differentiation, it doesn’t necessarily make you an expert. Your TA will, more likely than not, developed strategies that work with particular students, have a deep rooted knowledge of student needs & really want you to do well as a teacher. I would always pull over TAs at break or lunch just to ask for advice on a particular student. There’s a lot of knowledge to be shared, especially on how you can cater for individual students. Your TA might just hold the key!

3. Your second pair of eyes – I’ve taught really tough classes where it can feel as though you’re just putting out fires from table to table. I remember having a class where we had 5 TAs! Yes, behaviour was that bad. As a teacher, you can’t be everywhere all the time. You won’t hear or see everything. Your TA can be your second pair or eyes as well as your insightful pair of ears.

4. Share lesson plans – before every lesson, just explain the gist of your lesson. Give them an indication of what you’re looking to achieve & what you want the students to achieve. This can really help the lesson & gives the TA a bit of a chance just to digest the content themselves. I remember TAing’ in a Media Studies lesson. Students were to analyse the film cover for the Woman in Black. I’ve never seen the film but the teacher was fab! He sent me link to the film trailer prior to the lesson so by lesson time, I felt very confident in supporting students. Sharing lesson plans/ideas will really help your TA help your lesson!

In Summary:

With reduced funding & cuts to support staff, having a TA in your class is like gold dust, a rarity yet a resource that needs to be protected & cherished. Their role is incredibly diverse, challenging & also rewarding. Support staff are underpaid & underrated but it’s our job as teachers to make sure they are never under-appreciated.

Thank you to all the incredible support staff out there.

Robyn, thank you too!

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

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