How not to balls-up an important working relationship

I am continuously surprised by the level of animosity that can exist between teachers and teaching assistants, with the latter quite often feeling aggrieved and unappreciated, and teachers unaware of the basics of people management, sometimes displaying an attitude that is flippant, contemptuous or a bit aloof when it comes to working with a TA. General surprise then turns to concern when teachers who have the worst working relationships with their TAs are then promoted into senior leadership. It’s as if these teachers can only cope with managing children because children don’t answer back or have their own strong opinions, but when it comes to the other adult in the room there is a big problem and sometimes I wonder whether it’s down to the teacher viewing other professionals as a threat somehow. If you are a new, young teacher, I recommend you read this. Why? Because a good rapport with the TA means a good reputation for you; the TA will be talking about you to other TAs, the head honcho and the wider community. The TA has power. What do you want her to say? That you’re an pompous know-it-all who couldn’t give a toss about her feelings? Here’s how to instantly get a good reputation for free……

Possible Balls-up To Be Avoided #1: Having contempt for life experience and another person’s opinion

So, you have a situation whereby the young, new teacher fresh out of University/PGCE/SCITT/whatever has many, many ideas about how things should go down in a classroom. It’s great that she’s brimming with idealism, but should also be prepared for the subtle roll of the eyeballs from the TA because the TA knows what it is like to raise children (and the typical primary teacher doesn’t). For example, the new teacher might be a massive advocate of laying on a plethora of activities for children to choose from in order to encourage ‘active’ learning, but the TA knows, through experience, that too much choice leads to arguments, anxiety and less concentration in children, in addition to the fact that many children will choose whatever is easiest and fun rather than something that will challenge them sufficiently. If the TA raises her concerns, she will be given short, condescending shrift. If the TA stays silent, her worries will fester and grow, causing an awkward atmosphere in the staffroom and a reluctance on the TA’s part to go the extra mile.

What is the solution? Even if you don’t agree with the TA’s thoughts and opinions, it still pays to take the time to listen to her opinions and thank her for them too. Even better, be proactive and ask the TA what she thinks about your lesson plans for the week; many schools require a copy of plans to be given to the TA so that she knows who/which group she’s working with in lessons, so it makes sense to talk through these so that the TA is confident and will naturally have some opinions (even though she may not be the ‘expert’). How does this small gesture make the TA feel? Worthy, appreciated and needed. I know that a typical TA will have been at the school for donkeys years and will have seen many teachers, leaders, fads and initiatives come and go. The typical TA has also known the children in your class since they were in reception, so will have some insightful information on the child’s background, behaviour and previous achievements. The typical TA can also give the new teacher a lot of insider knowledge about other teachers and leaders; for example, who to trust and go to advice for, and who to avoid making any kind of joke around. Anyway, it pays off to take the time to talk to the TA and seek her opinion on lots of different subjects even if you don’t intend to go with the advice that comes with it. The TA will feel good if she is listened to.

Possible Balls-up To Be Avoided #2: Not saying ‘Thank you’.

Oh wow this is so common. Why do teachers not get this? Even though we teachers know that we will never get praise or gratitude for what we do from our senior leadership because the minimum requirement of practically selling your soul for The Cause is taken for granted, expected and written into our contracts, it still pays to regularly take the time and effort to say ‘Thank-you’ to the TA for her help and support. It just makes them feel good on the inside. Additionally, it’s important for the teacher to feedback to the TA that their help with closing gaps (for example, spending a lot of time with one child on their phonics knowledge) has helped that child immensely, possibly changing that child’s life forever. All success in the classroom is a shared success and always in part down to the effort of the TA; the TA deserves and needs a heartfelt, “Well done. We did it. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

When a TA feels good, she is less likely to bitch about you and she is more likely to go the extra mile by staying after school to help you with the wall display that SLT have told you isn’t ‘child-centred’ enough or whatever. I also recommend, as you walk through the school early in the morning, taking the time to poke your head into other classrooms and asking the TA in their how they’re doing, maybe mentioning how fantastic they are for getting in early and so carefully laying out the early morning activities on the tables, because the odds are that the class teacher has forgotten to do this and is off at a meeting or talking to other teachers about some idea they read about on Edu-Twitter.

Possible Balls-up To Be Avoided #3: Forgetting that the TA is a human being with outside interests and concerns. 

Again, perhaps because young teachers don’t have much going on their lives apart from teaching, they forget that the TA would like to talk about themselves a bit rather than the world of education constantly. Most TAs have long sinced left home, set up their own homes, had children and pursued some interesting hobbies by the time a newb teacher rocks up to the classroom. Remembering and taking the time to ask a TA how their children are getting on at university or how that loft conversion is coming along is akin to saying, ‘I care about you as a person’ and this is a massively powerful message because TAs quite often feel like they don’t matter. If you were a fly on the wall among the gossiping groups of TAs you will quite often find an undercurrent of resentment and low-esteem that really can be avoided with a few tweaks to teachers’ behaviour. It’s too tempting for young teachers to assume that because their job is so important and time consuming and that the ‘Needs of the children must come first’ that this means that it doesn’t matter if they don’t expend some energy making sure the TA has had a chance to air some personal stuff and get some sympathy. So, spend 5 minutes asking the TA about themselves. You won’t regret it.

As I’m writing this I’m thinking about how close this advice is to the kind of advice given to couples who are going through a rocky patch in their marriage. It basically all boils down to the fact that a relationship, like a flower, must be constantly watered and tended to otherwise it withers and dies. Only in the case of the TA-teacher relationship, not only can the relationship wither and die, but also the young teacher’s reputation and chances of career success.

It makes sense to treat your people well and I recommend that when you plan the next academic year, naturally thinking about how to be a better teacher, you also make a conscious decision to work at being a better colleague.

Who’s with me?

 

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7 thoughts on “How not to balls-up an important working relationship

  1. I agree with 2 and 3 but 1 seems a bit like creeping up to the TA to me.

    We don’t always have time to ask for opinions and I wouldn’t ask a TA’s opinions on my plans for the same reason I wouldn’t ask a child’s. They are not the expert. I do however try to make time to ask them about their interests and what they are good at/like about the job which means that I am happy to go to them when I do need advice.

    Also I would say the difference between my good and bad relationships with TA’s came down to whether the TA was frustrated by their job or where they had landed in life.

    It was about power and them wanting to be in charge of the classroom when it’s not their job to be.

    I don’t think this is always the fault of the TA – some teachers let them take over because they are lazy and don’t want to be in charge. But nature abhors a vacuum, if you’re not in charge then someone will be – TA or poorly behaved child.

    I actually think excessive use of TAs is part of the problem in schools and leads to further dumbing down if the TAs see themselves as the “advocate of the child’s feelings” or decide that their values are more important than the class rules and refuse to follow them.

    I think the main issue for me is that there has in the past been a tendency to pluck TAs off the street and train them after, with the teacher never receiving any training in this regard. It’s not easy to know how to manage a person if you have never done it before and if they are difficult.

    It’s about mutual respect for me – it’s no more the teacher’s job to keep a TA on side any more than it is their job to do things that keep the children on side. Good professional relationships are based on a secure understanding of ones role and what is/is not helpful. I think sometimes SLT play into this so they can use them as spies on teacher’s they don’t like or are in the process of bullying (been on the receiving end of that one – horrible way to teach).

    In the end it comes down to the lack of professionalism in teaching that’s the problem, especially at primary school. The more informal it is the less boundaries there are and the more they are crossed.

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    • Many schools expect the TA to be given a copy of the teacher’s plans and to be aware of who or which group they will be working with in each lesson. I just think it makes sense to at least talk through these plans so that the TA is confident with what they are doing. As part of this process, it’s good manners to ask for a colleague’s thoughts and opinions because if they’re not the expert (who is?), they may still have insightful comments to make.

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      • I agree it’s respectful to give TAs plans and talk them through the work but I’ve not always had the time due to the working hours of the TAs – not paid to come in earlier and paid only for 10 minutes extra at the end. I have had close working relationships with some but not with others – really depends on the person. I am perhaps more authoritarian!!!

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  2. A reliable ta is a godsend. But having to plan lessons depending if the ta is there or not can double the work. A good working relationship is critical and for an eary twenties teacher in charge of a mid forties ta this can be tough. More trainining on working with ta during pgce or scitt will be a big help

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  3. Really good advice. A Good TA can be the biggest asset a teacher has – even a little time spent planning/discussing together pays big dividends. Always thought that many teachers ask for more TA time, but when they get it don’t make good use of this valuable asset.

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