First, Burn the Chair: Revamping TA Support in the Classroom
Teaching support staff — especially when properly trained — provide an invaluable service to help students get the most out of their education. While there will always be some students needing more intervention than others, this support should be seamlessly integrated without stigma, and in a way that encourages independence and a sense of community.
Here’s a story of what that doesn’t look like, along with some strategies to get there:
Allison’s Teacher: When Support Interferes
When my daughter was in 1st grade, she came home excited to tell me a story about a teacher in her class named Mrs. Dewing. Since this was the first time I was hearing of her, I asked who she was. My daughter replied, “she’s Allison’s teacher.”
I was familiar with Allison — I remembered meeting her while volunteering in the classroom, and I did notice a support teacher by her side the entire time I was there. I thought it was pretty profound that this teacher was referred to as “Allison’s teacher.” I wondered what kind of impact that made in the classroom environment — and especially how it must have felt for Allison.
In the short time I was in their classroom, I rarely saw Allison interacting with the other students, even during collaborative work times. She also needed several behavior interventions. Were her outbursts purely because of feeling singled out and stigmatized? Probably not. But it certainly wasn’t helping.
What if Mrs. Dewing were simply present in the classroom — primarily there for Allison, but not always by her side and, from an outside perspective, there to support all students? Maybe then she wouldn’t be “Allison’s teacher,” but simply another teacher in the classroom. Maybe Allison would have felt more a part of the class, instead of an outsider looking in.
So how do we help our most vulnerable students while still promoting independence and an inclusive classroom community? Here are a few ideas to keep in mind:
Burn the Chair
Julie Causton has created a very powerful visual of a burning chair when referring to the chair that is so often placed directly next to the students that need additional one-on-one support. Support teachers should avoid continually sitting next to a student for long periods of time. Doing so singles that student out and promotes feelings of dependency. Instead, they could:
- Model note taking on the board for all students
- Summarize directions on the board
- Write down an achievable to-do list, then let the student take charge
- Encourage help from peers
- Create visual aids
- Pre-teach vocabulary words
Utilize Peer Support
Teachers should always take advantage of their most valuable resource: their students. Unlike the time I actually had 12 teaching assistants in my classroom, having an army of peer helpers can be a wonderful thing. Assigning students to help and work with each other is effective for everyone involved. Students who need help, get help. Students who need a challenge are given challenges. Classroom and support teachers can take a supervising role and are able to work with the students that need it the most. And best of all, everyone is working together as a community.
Adopt Scaffolding Techniques
Teaching assistants should support students at a “just enough” level, and always with the intention of gradually removing those supports when they’re no longer needed. The goal is not just to get students through something, but for them to move toward independence. This involves:
- Activating prior knowledge
- Moving from modeling to partner/group practice to independent practice
- Conducting formative assessments
Maximize Choice and Control
Many behavior issues stem from students feeling like they have no choice or control. Asking them what would help them most is a great way to make them feel more in charge of their learning. Learning support teachers could ask:
- What do you need during this lesson/assignment?
- When we work at the table, how do you want me to support you?
- Would you rather me remind you, or write a to-do list?
The easiest way learning support teachers can keep tabs on how their work is affecting students is to ask whether they are supporting belonging, or interfering with belonging. Keeping this question in mind and making adjustments when needed will go a long way to promote true inclusive education.
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