This week in Aus is Teacher Aide Appreciation Week!
Holy dooly do I appreciate every single teacher aide I’ve ever worked with.
In this episode I want to highlight some of the key reasons why we cannot live without our TAs; how best to work together with a TA in your classroom; and how you can access the unique and invaluable knowledge our TAs hold.
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Welcome to the over-half-way-mark of term 3 here in Aus. I don’t know about you, but for some reason I expected things to settle a little by now. Instead, it kinda feels like everything is going nuts still.
But rather than dwell on the crazy and negatives of the moment, I want to dedicate this week’s episode to all our absolutely incredible teacher aides out there! This week in Aus we celebrate Teacher Aide day – the official date range is August 29th to September second. Individual schools, should they choose to celebrate it, will of course do so on different dates.
For those international listeners, teacher aides can also be known as teaching assistants – they are the other adult in the room who helps to keep the lessons running smoothly, providing their unique expertise to both students and teachers.
There are a few different things I wanted to touch on today, but I want to start out with all the reasons why we love teacher aides. Well probably not all of them, I don’t have enough time for that! But at the very least a few top reasons. I have never met a TA who wasn’t genuinely worth their weight in gold. I’m not going to touch on the subject of pay here, except to say that TAs do NOT get paid their worth.
Classroom teachers love TAs for a whole variety of different reasons, and those reasons come down to what the TA is doing within the classroom. If you haven’t worked across primary and secondary, your experiences with TAs will be quite different. In primary school they tend to be attached to a class, or a particular student or group of students. In secondary they tend to move between classes with a student, or with a subject. Across both you can also find TAs who float around on various days, lending assistance wherever required.
Us classroom teachers have so freaking much on our plates, that TAs are a life-saving device for many of us. They are our extra set of eyes and ears in tricky classrooms. They are our organisational helpers, picking up pieces that we have let drop. They catch both us and our classes when we fall.
We love them for their ability to connect with tricky students. They know their personalities and routines, and how to help them de-escalate tricky behaviours.
We love them for their ability to genuinely help the students. They can sit and work with students in ways that the classroom teachers often cannot. They know how to respond, how to read the signals that the classroom teacher may miss in the moment. They work with small groups of students while the teacher works with others, acting as a true second educator in the classroom. They can adapt classwork on the fly to better suit those in their charge, often thinking in ways that the classroom teacher doesn’t. They have a knack of getting things through to the students when we just can’t.
Relief and beginning teachers love teacher aides because they are a source of truth. If they have been working at the school for a while, they are an invaluable bucket full of all the little bits of knowledge about the school that the admin staff don’t think to pass on. They know the procedures, routines, and expectations – sometimes better than the classroom teachers themselves. You can trust that if you ask a TA something about the school, their answer is spot on.
We all love TAs for their breath of fresh air and friendly conversation during the chaos of the day. Having an actual adult to talk to can make all the difference to your mental health some days!
The other thing I wanted to touch on today was how best to work with a TA in your classroom. Note that this will look significantly different between primary and secondary – as I touched on before, the role of a TA can vary greatly and their expectations can be wildly different between the two sectors.
No matter what the context of your TA, communication is absolute key. I cannot emphasise this enough. If you let your TA know what’s going on, they can actually help out. If they’re walking in blind, they’ll have a much higher mental load trying to follow along with the students at the same time as helping them. Of course they do this all the time, but it is our responsibility as the classroom teacher to lighten that mental load for them wherever we can.
If you have a TA permanently assigned to your class, for example in a primary school setting, building up a good relationship is vital. You and the TA may have different teaching styles, but that doesn’t mean you can’t necessarily work together. Let them know exactly what you want them to help out with, and exactly how, but you don’t need to be all dictator about it. Communication and compromise, acknowledge and celebrate each other’s knowledge and skills. Unfortunately all too often we see TAs being treated as a babysitter, or somehow ‘less than’ a teacher. Never underestimate their skills, knowledge, and abilities. Let them know what you’re doing, and see if they have any feedback. Perhaps they can think of a more constructive way to approach an activity, or a better grouping for students.
If you have a TA in a secondary setting, it will usually be in the context of assisting a single student, or small group of students, in your class. In this case it is even more vital to open and maintain a line of communication. Absolutely let them know ahead of time what’s happening in the lesson, so they can assess the best way to assist their student. Print out extra copies of worksheets, or ppt slides, or copies of texts. If you can, give them to the TA ahead of time, and they may be able to suggest ways to adapt them to better suit the student they are assisting. They may also have ideas for activities etc that you can implement that will help their charge along with the rest of the class. If you have a specialist subject that requires work in a lab or workshop, for example, let them know ahead of time if you’re doing an experiment, or cooking, or whatever, so that they can come prepared for that. They may not realise they need to wear leather enclosed shoes, for example.
Basically it all boils down to communication. Clear, timely communication. If your TA changes all the time, or you don’t get things organised far enough in advance, at least have a quick chat before the day or lesson to let them know what’s going on. TAs are incredibly resilient, and can adapt incredibly fast to what’s going on, but as I said before it’s our duty to lessen their mental load wherever possible. One teacher in a FB group I’m part of said that they keep folders in their classrooms to store things like model responses, metalanguage, sheets on mathematical strategies etc. Their TAs know where to find these folders and can access them any time they might need to.
The third thing I wanted to touch on today was a post I saw in a Facebook group. This post was by a teacher called Suraj from QLD, and she was musing about how TAs SEE so much. Especially the ones who have multiple different teachers throughout the week – they see so many different teachers in action, and therefore so many different teaching styles, approaches, and even shortcomings. They are in a truly unique position of being able to witness so much of our profession, far more so than any other teacher. And definitely far more so than any member of leadership – we all know we act our authentic teacher selves in front of TAs, but polish things up a bit when we know a member of the leadership team are watching. Suraj mentioned that a teacher aide told her some of the positives of her teaching, and that the feedback felt like it carried a lot of depth and was well-informed, because she knew that the teacher aide had seen her through various situations and had also seen a lot of other teachers too.
If you work with a TA who sees a lot of classes, absolutely you could ask them to give you a little feedback. I would discourage you from making it something big and formal, unless the TA wants to, because that’s just adding to their plate. But genuinely asking for their opinion of a lesson, or a situation, or your teaching style, shows them that you value their professional opinion, and will give you invaluable feedback that you wouldn’t get anywhere else.
I can honestly say I’d never thought about this side of things before. TAs see the whole school, good and bad, but because they are ‘just TAs’, they are often overlooked as a source of knowledge, truth, and inspiration. Which is a damn shame, given the incredible, indispensable impact they have on our schools, students, families, and us teachers.
So please, this week, truly celebrate your TAs in whatever way you can. I know some schools will host a morning tea, some will take over their playground duties, some will give chocolates and kind messages. Sadly, some schools will have organised nothing – if you know you’re in a school like that, please take it upon yourself to set up something.
I want to end with a quote from teacher Suraj – teacher aides are like connective tissue, supporting and giving structure to the organs, but also helping move things around, making everything just work as a whole.