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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 5, March 2006

Teachers’ tips: Teachers’ assistants in your classroom

by Bob Wilson

Think about your classroom. When you walk in can you easily identify the students with special needs by their proximity to classroom assistants? While the individualized support teachers’ assistants provide to students is crucial, there is research that suggests that the phenomenon of "too much of a good thing" may pertain here. In particular, the insular relationship that may develop between assistants and the students to whom they are assigned may have negative effects on those students’ social and academic growth, which can result in stigmatization and poor peer interactions.

Here are three quick ways to involve your teachers’ assistants in ways that can counter potential negative effects of their support, and take advantage of their presence when their attention to students with special needs is not immediately required.

First, think about using assistants as front board scribes during lessons. They can still wander between the front and their assigned students’ desks, and you benefit from being freed from the front of the room to observe and motivate students. As well, it gives students with special needs the opportunity to try more on their own before receiving assistance, while still having the "safety net" of an assistant nearby. As this relationship evolves, you may wish to consider co-delivering lessons with your assistants. Varying the instructional mode by including another person could serve to make those lessons more engaging for students and more rewarding for both you and your assistant.

In some classrooms and schools, assistants work with students requiring support while the teacher works with students who require less support. Try turning this scenario around. Students with special needs benefit most from more instructional time with a teacher. If possible, have assistants work with the more independent learners and find a quiet space inside the classroom to give students with special needs the learning support they require.

Finally, find topics about which assistants are passionate, and see if there are opportunities for them to share their passions with the class by co-planning a lesson or a series of lessons. This serves to connect assistants with the entire class, and thus potentially reduces the stigma students with special needs may feel for being the ones solely associated with them. You may also find that assistants have time at the end of their day when most classes are involved in non-academic studies, during which they are free to be in your class without sacrificing instructional support.

If you want to know more about the relationship between teachers and assistants, and explore the potential directions this relationship can take, the BCTF and CUPE produced a joint paper entitled "Roles and Responsibilities of Teachers and Teachers’ Assistants," which is available online at the BCTF web site.

Sometimes one-to-one support from teachers’ assistants is the best method of helping students with special needs. When there is space for flexibility, though, consider the other ways assistants can be more meaningfully involved in the whole class learning environment.

Bob Wilson teaches at Lady Grey Elementary School, Golden, and is a member of the Professional Issues Advisory Committee.

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