NIKKI SULLIVAN, DEPUTY HEADTEACHER, BECKFOOT SCHOOL, UK
CLAIRE SMITH, DEPUTY SENDCO, BECKFOOT SCHOOL, UK
The number of teaching assistants (TAs) in schools has risen sharply since 2000 (Sharples et al., 2018), and continues to rise (GOV.UK, 2023). Initially, this rise was associated with the determination to address teacher workload. However, the role of TAs is increasingly linked to An approach where a school aims to ensure that all children ... More and supporting students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in mainstream settings (Groom, 2006).
Problematically, continuous professional development (CPD) for support staff can lag behind CPD for teachers (Clay, 2017). Indeed, a review of our CPD for TAs threw into sharp relief the imbalance between their opportunities for professional growth when compared with teacher colleagues. Consequently, we recognised that we could ill-afford to not invest further in this growing team that plays such a key role in students’ education. Not only this but our staff, as individuals and as professionals, deserve and are entitled to this investment.
Through engaging in literature around both effective CPD and the effective development and deployment of teaching assistants, we were able to evaluate our CPD for TAs. To ensure that we focused on what would have impact, as opposed to ‘surface-level characteristics’, we utilised a ‘mechanisms-first’ approach (Pointer, nd). Through this evaluative lens, we recognised that our model focused heavily on ‘building knowledge’ (Sims et al., 2021) and did not have the balanced design necessary to optimally develop practice or change habits. A greater focus on goal setting, instruction, modelling, feedback, rehearsal and context-specific repetition (Sims et al., 2021) – mechanisms present within instructional coaching – would strengthen our approach.
We sought to build a professional learning culture where every An adult that assists a teacher in the classroom More believes that they need to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better (Wiliam, 2019). We identified four goals:
- Raise professional status through appraisal formats, in line with teaching colleagues (Groom, 2006)
- Build a shared language through the co-construction of a teaching and learning policy for teaching assistants (Bambrick-Santoyo, 2018; Balshaw, 2000)
- Strengthen the current model of professional development through coaching
- Ensure that approaches are evidence-informed and supported by external expertise when appropriate.
As a trust, we had already begun building an equitable approach to appraisal. Simultaneously, as a school, we went about the careful implementation of aims 2 to 4.
Instructional coaches are educators who ‘partner with teachers to analyse current reality, set goals, identify and explain teaching strategies to meet goals, and provide support until the goals are met’ (Knight, 2017, p. 26). Before we could consider utilising an approach informed by instructional coaching, aim 2 needed addressing – we needed to develop a personalised, shared ‘vision of excellence’ (Goodrich and Boguslav, 2022). This notion of a ‘shared’ vision was pivotal – especially as we were not teaching assistants ourselves. Together with teaching assistants, we developed ‘The Beckfoot Teaching Assistant - an adult that assists the teacher in th... More Way’. Subsequently, we set about training our team of coaches, where we were supported by an external consultant, Helen Morgan. An overview of some of our training is shown in Table 1.
|Coaches team||Coaches’ training||Methods of delivery|
3 higher-level TAs
Questioning and listening
Modelling and practice
Observation and feedback
Table 1: Coaches’ training
We also spent time developing our teaching assistants’ understanding of the process, enabling active participation – we did not want a transactional conversation that would be more akin to observation feedback than a coaching dialogue.
It was necessary to adjust the structures that we had in place for teachers’ coaching, as our teaching assistants were less used to similar forms of CPD. We needed to:
- Support the building of clarity around policy and best practice, which was still in its infancy (Groom, 2006)
- Strengthen the collegiate culture – a key feature of team success (Kraft and Papay, 2014; Coe et al., 2022).
We therefore decided to initially determine coaching leverage points collectively, linked to ‘The Beckfoot TA Way’, creating codified models of best practice – our playbook (Knight, 2007).
‘Scaling’ (Knight, 2017), where individual teaching assistants identify what they could do to move closer towards the goal, ensured that coaching remained bespoke. We planned to incrementally shift towards greater personalisation once both the coaching model and the best practice that teaching assistants had been so instrumental in shaping were embedded. Additionally, our first coaching meetings took place in one room concurrently. This not only created a team approach – ‘this is new and we are in it together’ – but it also provided greater structure to support our new coaches.
We shared with teaching assistants how coaching was designed to support them in growing within their role, and not as a stepping stone to teaching (which, for many, was not their ambition). We also highlighted additional opportunities, such as continuing to co-create best practice for our playbook and coaches training.
We used an anonymised survey, focused on four areas – the degree to which teaching assistants believed that CPD:
- enabled them to develop
- enabled them to collaborate
- provided motivation
- built clarity around what makes a great teaching assistant.
When comparing this baseline data with that collected after a year of coaching, we found a significant positive impact, including at least a third of the team moving their response to the highest ranking across all four categories.
Our established open-door culture meant that the evaluation of impact through walkthroughs was straightforward to implement. We know that we cannot determine the ‘quality’ of what is being observed (Wiliam, 2023), but coaches look at whether coaches are meeting with goals that they have set out for themselves (influenced by Didau, 2020). Subsequently, leaders can determine whether the team’s co-constructed best practice model is apparent in lessons. We have seen a significant development across previous leverage points, including ‘modelling attention’ and ‘scaling back support’.
We have identified the following next steps:
- Evaluate CPD provision for other support staff teams, including exploring what CPD looks like for similar roles outside education
- Work with teaching assistants to build a broader ‘repertoire of best practices’ (Knight, 2007, p. 24)
- Increase clarity of best practice by building a bank of video exemplars (Sims et al., 2023)
- Strengthen opportunities for collaboration through peer observation.
Coaching has allowed for honest and reflective conversations among our team, without the fear of judgement. One teaching assistant commented:
It’s great to be given dedicated time to think about how to improve our practice, and helpful to focus on small changes so it is easier to implement. It’s good to know everyone is doing the same and that teachers are aware of what we are doing. I feel invested in as an employee.
Thorough evaluation based on equity is key – it is not about replicating our teacher CPD model. Coaching may well be a route that we explore, but it will be important to determine this based on a broader understanding of coaching in education, such as that provided by Campbell and Van Nieuwerburgh (2018). Ultimately, we are committed to exploring and implementing opportunities for all staff to grow as professionals.