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What makes a good teaching assistant?

Published: Nov 22, 2016 3 min read

Stephen Lyon

Mathematics Lead

National STEM Learning Centre

teaching assistant

Over the years I have had the pleasure of working with a number of teaching assistants. Some were attached to the department and enjoyed the challenges of working alongside the mathematics team. Others were attached to students, getting to know the particular foibles of their charge as they worked alongside them in a variety of lessons.

The most valued piece of feedback I ever got was from a teaching assistant. She always took part in all the activities. I viewed this as going beyond the call of duty and that she undertook the tasks as a means of keeping her behaviourally challenged charge in line. However, I soon found out that this was not the case when at the end of one lesson she said “I really enjoy your lessons, I have learnt so much. I wish maths had been like this when I was at school”. My favourite moment in a lesson was when this boy leaned over and said “let me help you miss, you do it like this”

I was very fortunate to have a superb teaching assistant attached to my department. We team taught lessons, she took small groups for catch up lessons, gave one-to-one support and was a confident to some of the most challenging students in our school.

So what makes a good teaching assistant? Through the snatched conversations in the corridor, flurries of emails and the “have you got 5 minutes?” chats before lessons - the true value of the teaching assistant may not always be realised.

There are numerous examples of the positive impact teaching assistants have on learning and student wellbeing. This science guide contains a number of recommendations, which are also applicable to mathematics, includes tips to help teaching assistants identify gaps in student knowledge and skills, to develop literacy, help students interpret teacher feedback and how they can help students succeed in the new mathematics qualifications:

“The move from modular to linear exams is likely to have a marked impact on some students, in particular those who find it difficult to retain information over long periods of time. Where previously revision could be carried out in smaller chunks, we need to provide scaffolding and support for students to ensure they can retain and apply information from a whole year to their end of year exam.

Teaching assistant support can be invaluable for this, for example by using parts of the lesson or intervention time to go over information and ideas from previous areas of the course.”

In order to be able to carry out the above strategies successfully it is vital that teaching assistants have an up-to-date knowledge of the recent changes to the mathematics curriculum, not just the content changes but the change in emphasis: problem solving and mathematical reasoning.

The National STEM Learning Centre in York offers a course aimed directly at teaching assistants. The Enthuse supported course: “Teaching Assistants in Secondary Mathematics: ways of working that make a difference” is an essential course for teaching assistants who support learning in secondary mathematics, exploring ways of working that support students’ progress in mathematics, and also develop knowledge of both mathematical content and pedagogy.