Rachel Smith was 32 when she gave up a successful career in recruitment to try her hand at teaching. A trained nursery nurse, she had worked with children in her early twenties and, newly married, decided to give it another go. "I missed the variety and stimulation of children," says Smith. "At the time nursery care was poorly paid so I'd left out of economic need. When I married, I could try it again."

After temping at a nearby school, she applied for a job as a teaching assistant (TA). "My time temping had exposed me to the wealth of new ideas and teaching practices that were emerging. I knew that as a TA I'd be in a particularly good position to spend more time working with pupils."

In choosing to do this, says secondary school teacher Oliver Naylor, Smith became part of a growing tend. "There's been a substantial increase in the number of TAs. There's more provision now for students with special educational needs or those who have English as an additional language." In fact, the number of assistants employed in state schools has tripled since 1997, while this year saw several TAs named in the Prime Minister's New Year Honours.

The popularity of teaching assistance is largely down to its flexible qualification process. While for Smith it provided a second career option, teaching assistance can also be a good way for school volunteers to become full-time employees. Many TAs start off volunteering in their local school, helping out with day-to-day activities such as reading support or playground supervision. The experience is very valuable, and familiarity with the student body is highly prized; for those who are unfamiliar with their school, a registered local education authority induction is usually necessary. The Government is also piloting a number of training schemes, including apprenticeships in education assistance and diplomas in support work, and teaching assistants in England and Wales can strive for Higher Level Teaching Assistant status.

While qualifications are flexible, the skills required can be exceptionally far-reaching. "My day could involve so much," says Smith. "Anything from playing maths games to painting a 3D robot with one hand while tying a shoelace with the other."

Most important, teaching assistants need to build strong working relationships – both with their students and their fellow staff. The ability to sympathise with pupils regardless of background or ability is key, as is the capacity to command respect.

Teaching assistants also need to think creatively. "You need to consider different perspectives when unlocking a child's learning problems or interests. I often find that my time is taken up conversing deeply about Ninja Turtles, or the Spice Girls."

Beyond dealing with the students, teaching assistants are expected to build co-operative partnerships with the teachers.

In the classroom, an assistant will have to follow the teacher's lead – but, says Naylor, they are by no means playing second fiddle. "TAs are so much more than assistants. They provide an important working part of any school and need to be prepared to work in a team."

Communication skills are paramount. "If the teacher and the TA have time to plan together, it can boost the progress of the students and the overall management of the class," says Naylor.

As well as demanding a hefty skill set, life as a TA can be time-consuming. Extra-curricular activities, coursework inspection and parent-teacher meetings can all extend the work day into the evening.

That said, committed TAs are rewarded when the holidays arrive: like teachers, they have substantial holiday periods, making the job perfect for parents wanting to fit in with their family's schedule.

This, says Smith, allows for that all-important work-life balance. "The family-friendly holidays provide a welcome break – they allow you to get back to doing those everyday chores you take for granted."

TA tips

Teaching assistants tend to earn between £12,500 and £20,000.

Training material is available on the Government website: www.teachernet.gov.uk/teachingassistants

Other useful information can be provided by the Training and Development Agency for Schools and Teachernet