Lucky you, you have Teaching Assistants! (Or you wish you did). Okay, now how do you work with them? Working with Teaching Assistants is a challenge for both experienced and inexperienced teachers.
The first three years of my TEFL Adventure was spent in Spain, without any TAs. That changed when I started teaching in Asia. Although I had some teaching experience behind me, my Trinity CertTESOL and my job in Spain hadn’t prepared me for working with Teaching Assistants. In my first few lessons I felt like I was the evil step-mother asking Cinderella to do my job for me. I mean, who was I to tell them what to do, right? Luckily, my first TAs (those amazing ladies and gentlemen of HCM4 who know who they are) were very professional and experienced. They knew what I needed even when I didn’t, and they taught me everything I know about working with Teaching Assistants.
First and foremost, recognize and internalize this simple fact: Working with Teaching Assistants is a privilege. Once you get used to it, you’ll never want to go back to that stressful time when all the teaching, admin, parent meetings, and emotional support of the students rested on your shoulders. And if you’ve never worked without TAs? Well, count yourself among the luckiest of TEFL teachers, because not everywhere in the world do teachers get the amount of support that you do.
Why am I working with Teaching Assistants anyway?
Whether you are an experienced TEFL teacher coming from a country where TAs are not used in language schools, or you’re a new teacher at your first TEFL job, the first thing you have to do is find out what the TA’s role is at your school. Big schools or companies might provide this info in their Teacher’s Handbook. You can also ask your Academic Manager and of course, other teachers too. All of these people can help you understand what kind of jobs are the responsibility of your Teaching Assistants.
In most schools in Asia, your TAs are there to support you with administrative tasks that you can’t be expected to carry out in the country’s language. In Spain, we were expected to conduct our own parent-teacher meetings, in Spanish. In Vietnam though, administrators have rightly made the decision that most teachers can’t handle those kinds of meetings in Vietnamese. Your TA will relay information from you to your students’ parents and vice-versa.
Your TAs are also usually expected to assist you in classroom management and monitoring. Remember this doesn’t mean that if the kids are acting out it’s your TAs fault! It’s still up to you to create a system of classroom management that works for your class. Your TAs can help you enforce it. They can also give you a hand correcting activities or setting up games and keeping score.
If you’re as lucky as I am, your TAs might also be in charge of homework. The last time I took my red pen to a workbook was back in Seville in 2010, and I must say I don’t miss it one bit! This set-up does have its cons though. When I graded my students homework in Spain I would see what kind of mistakes the kids were repeatedly making and I would know I needed to review those points. Now that my TAs are in charge of homework I have to remember to check in with them once in a while to make sure there’s nothing that the kids are completely screwing up.
Where is my TA?!
Are your TAs spending a lot of time outside of the classroom? Wondering where they are? Your TAs have a bazillion administrative tasks that you may not even know about, and that you definitely don’t want to do yourself! Just a short list of official and unofficial TA duties at my school includes:
- Grading homework.
- Recording grades.
- Making name tags.
- Calculating pass/fail rates.
- Convincing parents to reenroll their kids.
- Making monthly progress report phone calls to all parents.
- Stuffing envelopes.
- Decorating for special occasions.
- Providing a shoulder to cry on.
- Finding the security guard to turn up/down the air conditioning.
- Writing daily study guides for the students.
- Taking kids to the bathroom.
- Waiting for late parents to pick up students
- Running around to find things the teacher forgot to bring to class.
- Keeping the teacher happy.
As you can see, my TAs are busy bees! Yours probably are too. They sometimes have to step out for a while to take care of these things. Just like you, they don’t get paid for the hours they put in outside of class, and they understandably want to get some of it done while they’re actually making money. So next time you have 20 kids rioting and you feel the urge to scream “Where the hell have you BEEN!?” as your TA calmly walks in the door, keep in mind all those menial tasks that your TA has to do. If you’re really struggling to appreciate all the work they have, I suggest teaching in Spain for a few months where you’ll probably be in charge of it all yourself. After licking 300 envelopes I’m sure you’ll come running back.
Why isn’t my TA’s English perfect?
Your TAs are students of English. I don’t mean they’re actively studying English, but most likely, they’re working as TAs in order to improve their English skills, not because their English is perfect already. The vast majority of my TAs have been students aged 18 – 23. They consider the job almost as an internship. It gives them administrative and educational experience in English that’s going to be invaluable to them when they finish their degrees. They want to learn from you, and just like with any student, patience is important. If you show frustration and annoyance, you’ll only succeed in alienating them. Take the time to make sure they understand what you are asking of them, and you will create a classroom ally.
Why doesn’t my TA take the initiative?
Because you are the trained Teacher and they respect you for it. They don’t want to step on your toes. Also, TA turnover is high. As soon as they get a degree and find a full time job they’ll probably stop working as a TA. Why? Because like I said before, they consider the TA gig as an internship. It’s a means by which they can find more lucrative employment in the full-time work force. This high turnover means at any given time your school might have a lot of inexperienced TAs. They’re still figuring out what their role in the classroom is.
So what should you do?
Tell them what you expect of them, of course! A quick chat before you start a new course can save you from misunderstandings for months to come. Introduce yourself and let your new TAs know what tasks you would like their help with in the classroom. Every teacher is different. While one teacher might not want any help from the TA at all, you might want something different. It’s best to be clear about expectations from the get-go.
If you want something done in class, ask! (But ask politely.) They may be completely zoned out grading homework and not notice that that kid looks like he’s about to throw up. Get their attention and nicely ask them to take the child to the bathroom. Just like with any aspect of life, you may not get exactly what you want from your TAs all the time, but you certainly won’t if you don’t ask.
As a side note, if you’re rude to your TA that can definitely come back and bite you in the ass later, as they’ll go and tell all their TA friends that you mistreated them. Trust me, you do NOT want a TA mutiny on your hands. Bottom line? Be nice.
How can I have a better working relationship with my TA?
Get to know them! Do you know where your TAs are from? Do you know what they’re studying? Do you know who they live with or whether they have siblings or what they want to do in the future? If you don’t, it’s time to get to know them. If you’ve been working with them a long time already and it feels awkward to do the ice-breakers this late in the game, tell them you want to talk about your classes. You can do this in the teacher’s room or even better, take them for a coffee or ice-cream and talk in a more casual setting. Talking about your class can lead to more personal topics. Do you need to share your deep dark secrets? Not if you don’t want to. Building friendships with your TAs outside of your classroom will immediately translate into a better relationship IN the classroom. If your TAs think of you as a friend, they’ll be less likely to get mad at you the next time you forget your markers in the teacher’s room.
How about you? Is your relationship with your TAs effective? How did you achieve it? Leave a comment below!