So you have a TA, you lucky devil. Teaching assistants can make your teaching experience a lot easier and more enjoyable. In fact, some classes that I’ve taught, especially preschool aged students, would not have been possible without a TA. If TAs are so beneficial, why is it that teachers often feel awkward working them?
Read on for explanations on why teachers sometimes have trouble working with a TA, a model teacher/TA relationship and some best practices for developing a smooth working relationship.
Common Pitfalls When Working with TAs
One reason that TA relationships commonly fail is that there is no clarity of roles. Some teaching assistants take on a role of absolute authority: they are the REAL teacher and you are merely the guest. This makes the TEFL teacher second guess everything that they do, which is extremely counterproductive when they are the one in front of the class.
The extreme opposite of that is when a teaching assistant doesn’t do anything. This isn’t usually out of spite, it’s usually because they don’t really understand why they are in the classroom. I mean if you are the students’ teacher, what are they supposed to do? This leads to boredom and often behavior that is counterproductive to the goings on in the class.
This is somewhat the fault of the teacher for not giving them anything to do. I’ve hear a lot of teachers complain about classroom management issues and blame it almost completely on the teaching assistant. “Some of the kids were standing on their chairs throwing scissors, and the teaching assistant was just sitting there playing games on her phone!”
The above statement raises two immediate concerns for me. Firstly, why wasn’t this teacher doing something about the chaos? Secondly, did the TA know that they wanted help? TAs are often told not to interrupt the native speaking teacher. They are told that our “crazy” games might seem out of hand, but really aren’t. Ask for help, simple.
Alternatively, there are the teachers who treat their TA like a slave. They are TAs, not PAs. They aren’t there to get you coffee or the worksheets that you forgot. They aren’t there to do all the work you are too lazy to do. They aren’t there to do your job for you.
So, How Does One Use a Teaching Assistant?
One extremely useful way to use a TA is for modeling language and demoing activities. When you are trying to present new language, it’s always a good idea to model it correctly for students. Having a TA allows you to model a Q&A or conversation for the students. Similarly, if there is a game or roleplay, you can show the students how to take part in the activity by demoing it with the TA.
Though one shouldn’t rely on it too much, I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never been grateful to have a TA for occasional translation. Especially with young learners at a low-level, classroom situations often arise where translation is helpful. If you simply can’t get students to understand a game, if, after trying several methods, students still don’t understand a concept, having someone to translate into L1 can save a lot of time and confusion. Similarly, if there is an emergency situation like a heated argument between students or an injury, the TA can save the day.
For classroom management in general, TAs can be helpful. There is a danger though of playing “good cop/bad cop”. If you are simply the fun one, and the TA is always disciplining the children, it isn’t good for either of you. If the TA is missing or leaves the room for a few minutes, you may suddenly find yourself without any authority at all. Instead, the TA and yourself should both agree on the rules and both enforce them.
TAs are another set of eyes in the classroom for classroom management, but also for judging individual student progress or the success of certain activities. Talk to your TA after class to get their opinion about how things went and if they have any ideas for how it could’ve been improved. This will also help to get them interested in the class and see what your reasoning was behind certain activities.
Best Practices for Developing a Good Relationship With Your TA
As stated at the end of the previous discussion, one way to develop your TA relationship is to talk to them about the class. If they see that their opinion is valued, they will be much more helpful. It also shows them that you care about the class and aren’t just there to make money. Generally, there is an enormous imbalance in how much the teacher gets paid compared to the teaching assistant. This can make them feel less valuable, so it’s up to the teacher to make them feel invaluable.
Be friendly. In the TEFL industry, usually TAs are local people. They may be a little nervous about teaching with a foreigner. I remember one of my early TAs telling me how nervous she was to work with me. She’d been told that foreigners had a lot of strange opinions and required a lot of things. She was worried I would be unreasonable and upset about the modest set up of the school. After a few coffees together, we had a great working relationship and even developed a lasting friendship. She learned some teaching techniques from me; I learned a lot about the country from her.
To summarize, the basic rule of thumb is to involve the TA, but not to an extent where they are doing your job or feel like you are ordering them around. If you end up in a bad situation where the TA is constantly distracted, don’t assume they don’t care. Instead, be polite and discuss how you’d like the class dynamic to be. See if they have any opinions to put forth. After all, just because they are called teaching assistants, doesn’t mean they aren’t teachers.