When I first started teaching it was rare to have a teaching assistant (TA) in your class. Those were the days before inclusion when children with significant educational, emotional, or physical challenges usually attended separate schools or classrooms. In fact, during those days, we had two teaching assistants for the entire school. Then when inclusion took root, we began to have teaching assistants in our classes.
I believe inclusion is almost always the right way to go--the more children learn to learn with each other and accept and support each others' challenges, the better off everyone will be. I see evidence of this daily. Yet, have I ever stepped back and truly considered how to best maximize and support the role of the teaching assistant and what that means for classroom life.
Early on when inclusion started, I was on the team of teachers that outlined supports to make inclusion work. Included in that list are supports that remain today such as yearly transition meetings and weekly planning meetings. Both of those structures are helpful with regard to successful inclusion. Yet, since that time, our grade-level has morphed to a collaborative teaching model which means that teaching assistants are working with more teachers and moving from classroom to classroom. That complicates the role a bit more.
Also, teaching assistants' schedules are tight--there is not much time for planning, communication, or professional learning in their day. In the best of worlds, I would greatly increase the number and diversity of teaching assistants in schools. I would also increase their salaries, hours, benefits, training, and professional opportunities--these people are critical to successful teaching and learning for children, teaching and learning that helps to create strong, happy, successful communities. Their role is vital.
So I am thinking about how to embrace the role of teaching assistants as a forethought rather than an afterthought. What can I do to better enable and support that role throughout the school year? I know that there are many teachers who make this a priority which is the right thing to do.
A good space in the classroom
Classrooms are generally filled with all kinds of equipment and materials, but it is important to make a space for the teaching assistant to hang their coats and secure their needed supplies and personal belongings. I generally have prioritized the classroom space for students, but I need to think more about making a positive space for teaching assistants.
There is little time for good communication between teaching assistants and teachers during the school day since we are mostly working with students or other colleagues every minute of the day, but it is essential to create a communication routine at the start of the year that works.
It is limitless what we can do for students, so we have to make time to prioritize our goals. This is particularly difficult to do when a child presents a complex and wavering profile, but nevertheless, we have to figure out what the priorities are and work together toward reaching those goals as much as possible.
Room for error
No educator, no matter their specific role, is perfect--we make honest mistakes as we will to do our best by children, families, and others. We have to leave room for that error and grow from it.
Record the good times and the challenging times
By keeping simple, good records, we can more easily see the challenges we have to work on and the successes we've achieved. It's important to celebrate the successes and not only dwell on the challenges.
The TA role in schools, I believe, is here to stay. It is a vital role for positive school life, and a role that we can all work to empower more.