I have been working with teaching assistants for many years now. Much of my time is spent trying reassure them that the fact that because they did not understand what they themselves were taught, does not mean they are bad at maths. So many of us have strong, fearful memories of failing in maths lessons, to the point that it felt like it was a better option to stop trying and admit defeat.
However, this army of angels is a huge part of our arsenal to fight for children’s progress and I have noticed they have been feeling increasingly de-skilled. There has been a sea change in the way maths is taught now. This has meant that the maths they see in the classrooms, with all of the colour, resources and discussion, does not necessarily reflect the maths of their own school experiences. Whilst this promotes a better mathematical diet for our pupils, I see that it is also chipping away at the confidence of some teaching assistants. When they are asked to work with the children now, there are all sorts of pedagogical demands that we are making, often with very little space to explain them. Take the concrete, pictorial, abstract approach, which, to the untrained eye, can look like a lot of fiddling around with bits of plastic and feels, well... slow. How much time are we spending talking to our teaching assistants about the pedagogical decisions we choose? Never mind the fact that, in more classrooms, conceptual understanding is being given a far greater focus. It is this conceptual understanding that teaching assistants often grapple with themselves, and asking them then to support pupils can feel daunting. We ask an awful lot of these devoted professionals - and the changes I have noticed are making me think!
Whilst I think we have recognised the huge changes in the role over recent years, I’m not sure I have thought enough about a similar variation in the CPD we offer these amazing human beings with their rich and varied roles. Just now, I am in the middle of a cycle of local training for teaching assistants all over the county, which examines their impact on children’s reasoning skills and shares some good practice that is specifically aimed at teaching multiplication and division effectively.
I have been yet again reminded of the insight and alternative perspective of the children’s learning that can be gained by investing time in reflection and collaborating with this rich workforce towards a shared goal. They are our ears to the ground. With increased subject knowledge, they can support teachers to pinpoint exactly why Billy is finding division hard, by explaining the approaches they saw Billy make and the mistakes he made. Whereas, in a lesson, often teachers see the woods, and teaching assistants see the trees.
For many years, we have been aware of a direct correlation between a teacher’s sense of self-efficacy and the achievement of their pupils. If you search the internet, you will see it remains an area of enormous interest amongst researchers. Maybe it should be obvious to us, then, that a similar correlation is likely to occur if we invest a little in our colleagues; it has been fascinating to watch the learning and the progress in the room while we have been working together in training and seeing teaching assistants detailing suggestions for further enhancements and applications for the children they are working with.
What is it that we want from our teaching assistants? I read some guidance around the job description online, finding that a typical notice reads something similar to 'you will be expected to provide support for a range of areas, jumping in as and when it's needed and at any given time, possibly at short notice'.
I think maybe this is why we see that teaching assistants are such fast learners. During training, after a little modelling with a few arrays and the room is buzzing with other ideas and methods they have also used to challenge children in their learning around multiplication and division. One lady, for example, noted that she “found this really helped when we were desperately trying to figure out how to calculate the area of our shapes in Year 4”, and, immediately, a fellow delegate was asking her to model how. The scaffolding of the language built in to my original training was immediately applied alongside the area model and the vocabulary adjusted. Impressive stuff! Yes, I’m convinced these learners are ready to go, and just a little more attention being paid to the teaching assistants’ sense of self-efficacy will reap the rewards and strengthen the teams in schools in the fight to deepen children’s learning in mathematics.
So, let's think some more about how we can fashion this army of angels with the mathematical wings they need to help our pupils.