Helping Teacher Assistants Be Successful

Helping Teacher Assistants Succeed

Like most teachers, I began my career in teaching as an assistant to the lead instructor. It was an aggravating time for me. More than anything, I knew I wanted to teach ballet, but I felt held back in a variety of ways. While it was only about a year of this teacher’s assistant thing annoying me, it seemed like an eternity.

Reflecting back, the benefits of being a TA were significant. Much was learned through that year which, in turn, set me up for success the following year as a “teacher in training”. But that doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t like it one bit. Honestly, I don’t blame my younger self.

At the time I didn’t know what was so bothersome to me about being a TA, but now I do. Those things include:

  • Not knowing what I was supposed to do. Feeling in the way. Unsure of my responsibilities.
  • Feeling lost when I was given responsibilities due to lack of information. Having little to no guidance.
  • Being used as a babysitter. My teaching skills not being the focus.
  • Constantly having to demonstrate for the teacher. Feeling that I was there only as a model and not to learn the craft of teaching.

These are some pretty hefty things to be annoyed by!  Of course, we teachers know there will inevitably be times when all of these things are present for us.  At times we will…

…not know what we are supposed to do; but we must step up and do something anyway.

…feel lost and have no guidance; but we must use this as an opportunity to find our own way.

…be used as a babysitter; but we must actively teach these kids regardless of why their parents put them in our class.

…be constantly asked by a student “Can you show me again?”.  To which we would like to reply, “Um, no. Actually, I can’t. Or rather, I won’t. Deal with it.” But instead, we will take a breath and make the wiser choice to turn the frustration into a teaching moment.

However, this article is not about “rising above” as a teacher. This is about addressing the valid annoyances teacher assistants are confronted with all the time.

Teacher Assistant Levels

Ultimately, being a teacher’s assistant means that you will be assisting the teacher in whatever ways are needed. But I believe there must be more to it than that. It must not be so one-sided. The TA’s needs should be taken into consideration, as well. Plus, we all moan how there are not enough good ballet teachers in the world, so let’s take action to change that. Let’s make good teachers.

Breaking things down into levels or steps, is enormously helpful to me, so that is what I have done. Levels for my TA’s are as follows:

LEVEL 1—Silent Teacher’s Assistant

This student can be as young as 9 or 10.  They have shown an interest in teaching and demonstrate leadership skills along with having a sound sense of personal responsibility.

Job Description: Silently assist the teacher with tasks such as taking students to the bathroom, changing shoes, demonstrating upon the teacher’s request, helping students line up and find their spots, and any other simple task the teacher might need.

I call this level ‘silent’ because their role, aside from addressing the students on occasion, is pretty much a quiet one.

Goal: To get exposure to classroom management and hands on experience with simple tasks.  By the end of the year the TA should have gained intuition on how to handle these jobs and feel comfortable taking the initiative to complete them.  The students in their care should both respect them and enjoy their presence in the class.

WHAT IT IS NOT:  This student should not be expected to teach anything. Ever. They are also not in any way responsible for any part of class.

LEVEL 2—Teacher’s Assistant

This student will likely be at least 12 or 13. They will have mastered the Silent Teacher’s Assistant role and be ready to take on more (guided) responsibility.

Job Description: To help the teacher teach actual steps and concepts with the teacher’s guidance. This might include dancing side by side with the teacher so the students can see the “Right and Wrong Ways” of doing a step; helping the teacher go from student to student correcting a simple technique (ex: don’t sickle while pointing); shadowing a student with special needs; giving input as the teacher requests it.

Goal: To get exposure with being at the front of the class. To be seen by the students and to feel within themselves that they are truly a part of the teaching process. To feel a sense of responsibility for the class outcome.

WHAT IT IS NOT: While this student does have more responsibility, the actual outcome of the class is not their responsibility at all. Any “teaching” they do is directed back at the teacher.

LEVEL 3—Teaching Intern

This student will probably be high school age. They are exceptionally comfortable with the previous two levels and have asked to learn more about how to really teach ballet. They are interested in how to break down technique, explain concepts, and inspire students to work.

Job Description: To observe class while taking guided notes. The teacher should give them specific topics to take notes on (corrections/praise/word choice/constructing exercises/dealing with behavior issues/etc). The notes should be turned in to the teacher who will look over them. From there, the teacher and intern have a small chat about the topic and decide on the next step forward.

Steps forward can include: teaching an exercise, observing that topic more thoroughly, choosing another topic to observe, etc. The intern should have significant opportunity to teach at least some parts of class—possibly teach an entire class once or twice if they demonstrate the needed skills and knowledge.

Goal:  To get exposure with being the lead teacher in class without the pressure of the entire class outcome resting on them.  They should be encouraged to explore their own style and voice as a teacher.

WHAT IT IS NOT: This student is not the teacher. Not yet. When they are placed in the lead, the teacher is always right there, observing and taking notes on them.

LEVEL 4—Teaching Apprentice

This student will be on the cusp of adulthood, probably 16 or 17.  They have made it through the other levels and now know they have a passion for teaching ballet. If they have had a good bit of exposure to teaching, they may know what ages/levels they most enjoy working with. They present themselves with confidence while teaching, understand the fundamentals, and are ready to be given a bonafide job (with some conditions).

Job Description: They will carry an entire class (preferably one class only) through the entire year. The class outcome is their responsibility. They will be paid accordingly. Their teaching will be monitored by a mentor (preferably each time the class meets) and this mentor will give them feedback and offer ample opportunity for conversation.

Goal: To gain experience and build a resumé. To better understand and hone their craft. To have the full responsibility of a teacher while also having the extra support and encouragement from a mentor.

WHAT IT IS NOT: While this student is a true teacher, they have not been launched out on their own just yet. They do still need that person in the background they know they can go to for guidance, redirection, and reassurance. They are not at it all alone.

Having a TA in your class is a responsibility.  Their time should be valued and their goals should be heard and respected.  This means added work for the teacher.  I firmly stand by the idea that only experienced teachers should have TA’s.  Our assistants are not there because they have nothing else to do.  They have a purpose and it is the teacher’s job to help that purpose remain focused and gain forward momentum.

If we want good ballet teachers then good ballet teachers must make them. So, let’s make them!

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Helping Teacher Assistants Be Successful

One Response

  1. So, how much does the TA pay to learn all of these things? Assuming, as the article states, they are there to learn. A TA is there to assist. Teacher training is something entirely different.

    Francis August 1, 2017 at 1:35 PM #

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