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By: Catherine O’farrell

As we approach the start of a new academic year, schools are getting ramped up to reopen and deliver their induction weeks, welcoming a brand-new batch of fresh teachers to the UAE and embracing returning teachers to their familiar classrooms.

 As we plan for training on all subjects from school routines to cultural awareness, how many school leaders are accounting for our shadow teachers (learning support assistants, classroom assistants)? Are we scheduling them for training and skills development?

This critical army of support warriors is often overlooked, and so a vital resource is being neglected.

A recent study in the Journal of Inclusive Education (2020) investigates the role of the Shadow Teacher (Learning Support Assistant) in inclusive schools finding that; if deployed well, the shadow teacher can positively impact students’ reading, writing, speaking, listening and peer to peer interactions. In short – they can be superstars!

The research outlined that, with the right training and skills development, the shadow teacher can support not only the student but the teacher.

This is supported by research from the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK, which analyses the cost, effectiveness and impact of a broad range of educational interventions.

They have found that small group teaching (led by a teacher or assistant) along with collaborative learning can accelerate student attainment by up to 5 months per annum.

With an estimated 8,000 shadow teachers deployed across the UAE, there is a huge opportunity to develop this highly valuable battalion of support.

So, how can we prepare fully before schools open to harness the power of this key support in our classrooms?

One of the first steps to take before our return to school is a clearly outlined job description and memorandum of understanding (or service agreement where appropriate). Does the school, the class teacher and, most importantly, the shadow teacher know precisely what their duties and expectations are?

The Educational Journal outlines the importance of training and skills development for shadow teachers.

This should be clearly defined and shared with all stakeholders- parents, teachers and, where appropriate – the student.

The research further states that one of the greatest barriers to successful support from a shadow teacher is a lack of clarity around classroom practice and obligations.  Communication between the shadow teacher, the class teacher, the student, the inclusion team and the family is key.

Does the shadow teacher fully understand the school schedule, their responsibilities and obligations in terms of duty of care? Do they have the lesson plans for each week, and do they know how they can work with the teacher and student to deliver the lessons effectively?  

Setting aside 15 to 20 mins on a Thursday afternoon or Sunday morning to sit with your shadow teacher and go through the upcoming week’s planning can have a profound effect on your teamwork. When the shadow teacher and the class teacher come together to set up the week’s delivery and to learn, they can clearly define what is happening and when. They can mark out how they can work together, who is strong in different areas and share the lead role, where appropriate, to ensure variety in delivery and to free the class teacher to work more closely with individuals in the class.   Defining where you can schedule some fun activities- role play, acting, or dance can create a more fun and engaging classroom for all.

Where possible, team teaching can be a powerful tool in engaging the whole class. This not only increases the learning impact but a well-developed relationship and good dynamics can make a classroom fun and exciting, and the students will love it!

In ensuring quality support with your shadow teacher, a clear outline of the student’s needs must be agreed upon in collaboration with the student themselves – their voice is vital in this plan no matter what their age. Ask the student and the family – what do they find difficult, what are their barriers to learning and how can the teamwork together, under the guidance of the inclusion department, remove those barriers and improve the student’s experience. It is imperative that both the teacher and the shadow teacher fully understand the student’s area of need. Full knowledge of the barriers caused by those needs will ensure the best possible approach to alleviating those needs.

Talk about using assistive technologies, tools and methodologies to reduce the effect of barriers. The inclusion team will be key in these initial discussions and can guide everyone on best approaches and practices. As a team, the shadow teacher and class teacher should talk to the parents and the student together to investigate what works at home, at play or while out & about etc. Discuss how you can emulate these practices at school.

If everyone is fully prepared and communicates well before the start of the school term, activities can be well structured and laid out, students’ needs will be fully understood and catered for, and support can be implemented successfully from day one.

Some questions to ask before the first week of school begins in September might include:

  • Does everyone know the student’s specific needs?
  • Does everyone understand the barriers to learning associated with those needs (e.g. what is Autism, how does it present, how does it affect my student)?
  • Is everyone clear about the role they will play in the student’s educational journey?
  • Does everyone have the IEP, and are they clear about their role in meeting its goals?
  • How are we tracking and monitoring the impact of collaborative support?

By being fully prepared and organized, the teacher and shadow teacher can work together to form a superpower duo!

Following the huge success of the Inclusion & Wellbeing Forum, which has been running for nearly two years now, we will be launching a Forum specifically for Learning Support Assistants – shadow teachers, classroom assistants or anyone working in a supportive role for students of determination.

This will be a free forum where LSAs can come together to share practice, experience and ideas. We will invite LSAs to speak as well as special educators and specialists to deliver sessions on a range of areas like understanding specific needs, tools and methods to use in schools and wellbeing support. Hosted monthly by myself and Ms Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, we will launch the first one on Tuesday 24th August at 4 PM with guidance on preparing for the return to school.  Please do come and join us and share the article link with any LSA who you think might benefit from this forum.


Faiz, Z., (2020), Role of Shadow Teacher in the provision of Academic and Social Support for Children with Special Needs at Inclusive Schools. Journal of Inclusive Education, Vol. 4, Issue 1, 2020.

Education Endowment Foundation, 2021,

Catherine O’Farrell

Catherine O’Farrell is an experienced educational leader and consultant. She hosts an international voluntary forum for Inclusion & Wellbeing leaders. She is an advocate for inclusive education and sustainable improvement of educational practice across the MENA region working under the Global Sustainability Network stiving toward the UNSDG Goal 8. Catherine is a regular media contributor and conference speaker.