Classroom assistants or Teacher Aides (TAs) provide invaluable support to both teachers and the students they assist. The role of TAs has long been ill-defined in many Western countries such as the UK and Australia. The name “teacher aide” itself is vague, a catch-all term to refer to individuals who support the work of teachers in unspecified ways. The work of TAs often overlaps with other roles. In 2016, Australian schools employed 71,700 TAs, a 37% increase from 2006.
Using Victoria as an example, Dr. Shiralee Poed commented that 15 out of 100 children require additional support at school for various reasons. TAs can be assigned to those who struggle academically. Students from non-English-speaking or indigenous backgrounds can benefit from having a support worker act as a liaison between themselves and the teacher. On average, 4 children out of this group of 15 experience barriers to learning, due to physical and mental disabilities such as blindness, cerebral palsy, or autism. These figures demonstrate the vital role of TAs for a significant number of students.
Roles and Responsibilities of Teacher Aides
In the past, the work of teacher aides was mostly limited to admin duties, photocopying worksheets for teachers and/or adjusting learning materials for SEN (Special Education Needs) students. They also assist those students to participate in school activities and to engage with the curriculum despite their limitations.
In recent years however, the scope of the TA role has broadened, with TAs taking on greater responsibility in regard to the instruction and overall well-being of SEN students. According to international and Australian research, TAs are responsible for designing lesson plans and overseeing the learning of SEN students 75% of the time. Fifty percent of the time they are doing so without teacher supervision. In Australia, this occurs despite the fact that most agreements and legislation stipulates that TAs shouldn’t fulfil the functions of teachers, and that teachers must take charge of every student’s learning.
Research Highlights the Pitfalls of Current TA Deployment in Schools
A six-year UK study conducted by education expert Peter Blatchford and the work of Australian researchers indicates that this situation is far from ideal for students with special needs, teachers, or teacher aides. The UK study exposes the weaknesses of current practice, which expects TAs to assume responsibilities that are often above and beyond their role, capabilities, or qualifications. Blatchford’s study found that:
- Contrary to popular assumption, teacher aides have little to no impact on the educational outcomes of the children in their care, and sometimes negatively impact their academic progress.
- On average, a student who works with a TA in class spends less time in instruction with the teacher. 75% of teachers in Blatchford’s study reported that they felt unprepared to instruct SEN students. In many cases, the TA is the least qualified person trying their best to support students with the highest needs, some of whom may experience significant learning difficulties.
In Australia, the situation is similar. TAs are encouraged to obtain further qualifications through TAFE certificate and diploma courses. Of the 71,700 TAs currently working, about 35% of them finished their formal schooling at the end of Year 12 or before that. Over half of the 71,700 TAs completed TAFE training. Only 15% of these hold tertiary qualifications, either in education or another field.
Research also shows that SEN students working with TAs may feel isolated from their peers. For example, they are less likely to be chosen as a member of a work group by other students, who may not want an adult working with them. Some SEN students feel embarrassed at needing to rely on a TA. They are less likely to engage with peers if an adult has to help them communicate. One interesting finding was that some students who work with TAs tend to sit back rather than take initiative in their learning because an adult can help them if necessary.
School staff need to reflect upon the effective use of TAs in the classroom, their interaction with teachers and students, and to create quality training and professional development opportunities for TAs.
Effective Use of Aides in Class
- Rather than using TAs as instructors of academic knowledge, use them to help School students develop soft skills such as good work habits, and build up resilience, or coping skills. If TAs have an instructional role, they should be given appropriate professional development opportunities and support from the teacher.
- Blatchford’s study found that most teachers either did not or could not allocate sufficient time to collaborate with TAs on lesson planning, or to communicate feedback. This frustrated TAs. Moreover, most teachers received little training on how to interact with support staff. Time must be set aside to ensure that TAs are familiar with lesson content, and the skills which are being developed.
- Teachers should avoid assigning TAs to students for long periods, without teacher interaction. One strategy is for the class to complete activities which require minimal support from the teacher under the TA’s supervision, while the teacher focuses on the SEN students for a few hours.
- Use TAs to add value to teachers, rather than replace them. For example, the teacher can ask them to write the points of an explanation on the whiteboard. This makes the TA a more visible part of the class. It may help SEN students feel less isolated, as the TA is working with the entire class, not just them.
- Finally, TAs should be used to help students develop independent learning and thinking skills. TAs can avoid over-prompting or spoon-feeding information, but rather encourage children to work independently by offering the least amount of help first. TAs can help them feel comfortable about taking risks with their learning by discussing ideas but leaving students to make decisions.
- TA training should be supported by evidence-based research.
TAs are an essential support for SEN students, who shouldn’t be left behind. They can also be a valuable and versatile asset to the class as a whole and the teacher. The secret is to know how to effectively use and develop the talents of support staff in the classroom.
“Do teacher aides help or hinder students with special needs?” Presented by Michael Mackenzie. Afternoons. ABC Radio National. 15 June, 2016.
Blatchford, Peter, et al. “Research Brief: Deployment and Impact of Support Staff Project.” Institute of Education, University of London, Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2009.
Earp, Jo. “The effective use of classroom support staff.” Teacher Magazine. 29 June, 2016.
Poed, Shiralee, et al. “Making A Case For Teacher Aides.” Pursuit. 1 June, 2016.
Webster, Rob. “The best ways to work with teaching assistants.” The Conversation. 27 February, 2015.