TA skills

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Antony Morris describes the amazing skills of Teaching Assistants in special schools

Ever spent a few days in a special school? If you have, providing it is not one with an archaic philosophy, you may have marvelled at the skills of most teaching staff. From specialist deaf, blind schools and autism schools to more general mild, severe, or profound learning difficulties schools, the variety of skills your typical Teaching Assistant (TA) has is truly remarkable. If you have never been fortunate enough to see them in action, let me enlighten you.

Without dwelling on the potentially high-pressure environments, where educating and safeguarding some of the most vulnerable people in society is paramount or on the potential consequences of getting even some of the simpler things wrong, let us have a look at the range of skills you will see across special schools.

Amazing teamwork

Firstly, teamwork. The communication between a familiar class team juggling numerous bits of medical and pupil-specific information at the same time as teaching is impressive. Before teaching can begin, depending on the school or class, pupils may need hoisting out of wheelchairs onto mats or into specialist physiotherapy equipment. They may need a round on the trampoline for sensory needs or even medication. TAs will potentially train for all of this. Also consider any class of ten pupils, who may have ten different conditions and will certainly have ten different personalities and sets of needs. TAs will be familiar with all of them including the educational approaches that may be different for each pupil in class.

You will see communication approaches we are all familiar with, such as British Sign Language, Makaton, and Braille. But also, ones we may be less familiar with, such as the use of body language, moon letters or visual symbol exchange. TAs will pick these up, learning from pupils along the way, until the point they can move between any communication method, depending on who they are working with. Naturally, the practices in different special schools can differ greatly, but for some of the more general, mild to profound learning difficulties in school classrooms, you may find TAs moving from structured sensory playing to telling a story using speech, Makaton and sensory cues. In addition to this, TAs will be familiar with a multitude of communicative and educational technologies and software.

Remarkable TAs

Something that underlies much of a TA’s experience is the emotional and physical toll of working with multiple individuals with potentially concerning behaviours and/or medical conditions. While these are topics for discussion in themselves, I have found that staff build personal shields supported by the community nature of special schools. Whether that toll comes from continued exposure to concerning behaviour or pupil mortality, the ability for teaching staff to cope while employing all the aforementioned teaching skills and a high level of professional standards, for the most part, is remarkable.

“The role of a special school TA has evolved over the past 20 years from a carer’s role to a teaching role that requires knowledge across different disciplines and a cool head” (Lee, 2011).

Perhaps a symptom of society, perhaps not, but this evolution has brought with it a younger, typically more educated and understandably less long term TA. However, the changing face of TAs is for another day. Today is for admiration. Praise to both older and newer TA’s, who, for a fraction of the money or recognition they deserve, display an incredible amount of skill on a daily basis for the benefit of others.

Antony Morris
Author: Antony Morris

Antony Morris
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Antony Morris is a Former Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA) and Special School Governor, currently studying to become an Occupational Therapist.

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