Let’s work together: Supporting your mentee to work with support staff *

*This blog is written within the context of the secondary phase. 

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Since Hakim started at Skyview Academy, high levels of staff absence have meant he has been working alongside a number of supply teachers and cover staff rather than the class teachers to whom his timetable is attached. 

Recently, Hakim’s lessons have been covered by Trudy, an experienced cover supervisor who has made it very clear she does not think Hakim is up to the job.  This week, when Trudy was allocated to supervise Hakim’s lessons, she felt he was not managing 8P well enough so ‘intervened’, handing out behaviour points and telling Hakim (in front of the class) that she felt he needed to move the lesson onto the next task.  After the lesson, Trudy told Hakim she would speak to his mentor about how badly the lesson had gone stating she’d had no choice but to take over. Hakim was devastated. In his mind he’d been implementing the strategies he’d agreed with his mentor, and that 8P – a fairly notorious class around school – had been noisy but working and had shown sufficient understanding. Hakim feels Trudy has undermined him. He’s dreading 8P’s next lesson and feels any authority he may have established has been drained by Trudy’s actions.

How can Hakim’s mentor unpick this tricky situation?

The scenario involving Hakim and Trudy can be quite a common experience for beginning (ITT) and early career (ECT) teachers working with experienced support staff. These colleagues, often rightly, feel they know how the class would be best ‘run’ and may even suspect they would do a better job than their new colleague. They are used to picking up the plan and running with it, frequently with very little training, and have found ways to manage challenging classes and get through a lesson. These experiences can sometimes mean they look at ITT/ECT colleagues with a sense of frustration, and inevitable confusion as to why they are finding it all so difficult.  In contrast, beginning teacher colleagues can sometimes struggle to know how they as teachers should relate to support-colleagues, and they find the delicate ecology of a school, in which every member of the team plays a vital but distinct role, a bit of a mystery.

For mentors arbitrating these situations it can be tempting to smooth things over. However, the ‘Professional Behaviours’ exemplified in the ITT Core Content Framework and Early Career Framework include the requirement for new teachers to learn to work with colleagues as part of a team, with the Teacher Standards requiring beginning teachers to have demonstrated they can “deploy support staff effectively” (TS8) by the end of their ITT year. This means that a mentor needs to help their mentee develop their understanding of the expertise different support staff in school possess and incorporate planning for them into their lesson preparation. Obviously planning to deploy a teaching assistant effectively is different from planning for these unusual ‘cover’ scenarios, but the overriding principles of ‘utilising the other adult in the classroom to best effect’ remains true in both situations.

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What does Hakim need?

It is probable that Hakim has not really considered this aspect of a teacher’s practice. Does he realise he should be planning proactively for the deployment of other adults in the classroom, or is he expecting them to wander around supporting more generally with little idea of how he wants them to support specific children or scaffold certain tasks? Is Hakim sharing his lesson plan with supporting colleagues ahead of the lesson so they can think about how to carry out their job? Planning for support staff is an important part of a teacher’s job.  Hakim will need this modelled to him and be given opportunities to practise this type of planning.  Mentors may find the Education Endowment Foundation report on ‘Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants’ helpful.

What does Trudy need?

Similarly, support staff need to be given guidance about how they can use their experience to help ITTs/ECTs to deploy them effectively.  Having not been through the ITT process themselves, they may not appreciate the complexity of the endeavour or the range of activities beginning teachers are simultaneously trying to master alongside being in the classroom. They too then need clear guidance and training around how to interact with inexperienced teaching colleagues and to understand the boundaries of the advice and support they should, and should not, be providing; giving ‘observation’ style feedback for example should only be on the explicit agreement of the mentor and beginning teacher and have a clearly defined focus.  

Supporting the support-relationship

Establishing opportunities for ITT/ECTs and support staff to meet early on to share their experiences and roles can be important for ensuring they ‘deploy support staff effectively’.  Using an ITT coordinator meeting to invite support staff to talk about their role and the most effective practice they’ve seen in developing this teacher/support colleague relationship can help bridge this gap.  It allows beginning teachers to understand how the expertise of support staff can help pupil learning and facilitate more effective lessons.  It can also help support staff to understand why ITT/ECT teachers sometimes find having another adult in the room hard, how their support can be misconstrued as undermining, and it provides a safe space early on for a mediated conversation with an experienced mentor colleague present. 

One example of a strategy that has been found helpful in this kind of situation is creating a ‘support card’ which the ITT student can provide to the cover teacher or support staff member to indicate how they would like the relationship in the classroom to work.  This can be very general, or it might be tied specifically to that class.  For Hakim, teaching 8P for example, his support card might say:

Context of group:8P struggle to get started with tasks.  Certain pupils can be volatile.
Approach agreed with mentor:Focus on giving clear instructions and ‘waiting’ techniques to get pupils settled. De-escalation techniques
Support role I’d like you to take in the lesson:Please work primarily with S and JD who need support to scaffold them into activities (indicated on lesson plan).  If another pupil is disruptive, I’d appreciate you moving to be near them, quietly redirecting them back to the task.  I will allocate behaviour points and sanctions if necessary – it is important I take the lead with this.
If I need someone to step in and take over, I will indicate this by:saying ‘8P, I am now going to hand over to Mrs Smith is now going to help you through the rest of this task.

Doing something like this, with the advice of a mentor and a support colleague who can help shape what it is possible for support staff to contribute to a lesson, can be incredibly instructive for a beginning teacher. The card itself is helpful for support colleagues trying to understand how to interact with a beginning teacher.

Much to learn

Hakim and Trudy need to find a way to work together that is collegiate rather than critical. Hakim has much to learn from Trudy, but there are also things Trudy needs to learn to enable her to work successfully with new teachers.   Both need mentoring support to understand their roles in this professional relationship and work together to the benefit of their pupils.

Further Reading:

Cajkler W, Tennant G, Tiknaz Y, Sage R, Taylor C, Tucker SA, Tansey R, and Cooper PW (2007) A systematic literature review on the perceptions of ways in which teaching assistants work to support pupils’ social and academic engagement in secondary classrooms (1988–2005). In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London

Skipp, A. and Hopwood,V. (2019), Deployment of Teaching Assistants in schools: Research Report, DfE: London.

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