A few weeks ago, Joy Judge asked me to write something for TA Focus, and I quickly agreed. My first question was “What do you want me to write about?”
“Ooo, anything you like, really… about being a T.A. or a union rep., something along those lines”.
Right! No problemo! No sooner said than done! A large slice of the proverbial Mr Kipling’s coming right up! And I started to think…to plan…to ponder…
…Nothing…nada…niente; my brain slowly turned into the set of a 70’s Spaghetti Western, with nothing moving but a lone tumbleweed rolling down the deserted dirt street of a town devoid of ideas.
Only now, as I face the first day back at the chalkface, after a blissful few weeks which flitted by all to fitfully, do I feel that I can tackle the subject of what it means to be a TA: I needed that distance because, when you actually consider the statement “I am a Teaching Assistant”, nobody, until fairly recently, has had the vaguest damned idea about just what I was claiming!
Let me explain. A taxi driver drives a taxi, a window fitter fits windows, a teacher teaches, but just who or what does a teaching assistant assist; are we there to assist the teacher or the teaching, or, as has been the case in the vast majority of positions which fall under the general heading of TA, is neither a better answer?
Most people who came into this profession have found themselves supporting the learning of individual students, sometimes out of the classroom but mostly in class, with most of these students having been encumbered with a statement of special educational needs. The burgeoning growth of TA numbers is pretty consistent with the scramble by educational specialists and psychologists to have their papers on various ‘-isms’ and ‘-xias’ and the need for inclusion recognised by the establishment, and the closure of nasty, expensive special schools which kept these students out of the mainstream : what was an innovation in the 1970’s is now a job which employs over 300,000 people in the UK, and has become the accepted norm in just about every school in the country.
However, in the charge towards inclusion wherever possible, whether it was the right thing for the individual student or not, normally quite sane, measured, methodical people in education failed to ask themselves the very questions they expected their teaching staff to ask of their students each and every lesson: What are we aiming to achieve by placing TAs within schools? Who is the best person for this job? When should they be employed? Why are they necessary? Where should they work? How will we measure their achievements?
The failure to ask these very basic questions grew as the TA employment numbers ballooned. What we see, as teaching assistants became part of the education framework, are assumptions made in high places that whilst we were deemed necessary, to ‘deal with’ statemented and other problematic students on a day-to-day basis, little thought was given to the how, what, where, when & why aspects of our employment…presumably, those educational specialists missed that part of the equation, and with the unquestioning acceptance of generations (in professional career terms) of education ministers and officials, local authority personnel, headteachers, teachers, etc. the cheap, thoughtless, unprofessional misuse of teaching assistants became the status quo.
Hard words? Let me take you back to my first job as a Learning Support Assistant, when my then SENCo informed me that the gentleman in charge of education for my local county council viewed teaching assistants as “a bunch of middle-aged women who sit at the back of the class with the ‘numpties’ and try to keep them quiet”.
His words were harsh, totally unprofessional, and politically incorrect, but, you know what? He had a point, because the study, ‘Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants’ by Peter Blatchford et al, (when someone actually did get around to starting to research what we do), found that ‘middle-aged women’ was what most of us were, and sitting at the back of the class with the most vulnerable students was what most of us were doing . Because none of the ‘movers and shakers’ in education had asked those important questions, teaching assistants found themselves, over the years, doing anything and everything, from photocopying and general admin for teachers, to actively teaching whole classes on virtual slave-labour wages for headteachers who enthusiastically interpreted ‘cover supervision’ to mean anything that would get them out of a hole, cheaply. But by far the largest group were those of us trailing after statemented students from class to class, in an endless battle to ensure that they ‘kept up with the rest’.
Some of us found our way into schools by volunteering to help out with our own kids, and subsequently found that it suited, hours- and holiday- wise, and the money on offer came in handy; ‘pin-money’, if you like. As the years went by, this idea of women, locally based, of ‘a reasonable standard of education’ (whatever that means!), working hours which suited their commitments (if not their bank balance), became entrenched in education circles, especially as teachers moved further and further away from the schools they taught in, and moved jobs more frequently to keep pace with increasingly accelerated career paths: We, the support staff, became the stabilising factor, the friendly face of the status quo in schools…we weren’t going anywhere…
And we colluded in this contrived educational sleepwalking, because we are nice people; we wanted to help, to work in education with the vulnerable and less able, to feel a part of something that mattered, and we wouldn’t rock the boat, even if we wondered how watching an hour-long film about a kid breaking up a classroom could, in any way, shape or form, be called sufficient training on ‘behaviour problems and how to deal with them’, or how we could work in a Maths department effectively when nobody seemed bothered that we didn’t know how the new Maths being taught worked! We’re nice people, and those higher up must know what they were doing, right?
Okay, this scenario may not be the same for every TA reading this, but I’m willing to bet that I’ve struck a few chords with more than a few of you, and some of you will still be doing the same old dance.
However, our past doesn’t have to be our future, and it is up to us to push for the changes so badly needed in the implementation and career development of TAs. Whilst there are chinks of light appearing as the great and good slowly absorb what Blatchford et al have concluded in their offerings on the use and implementation of TAs, it is a slow, uphill battle to achieve the proper training, status, recognition and remuneration we deserve.
For every school that is waking up, smelling the coffee, and realising what a positive resource we could be, given the correct funding and encouragement, there are countless other dinosaurs, still lumbering around, waiting for everything else to evolve around them. For example, how can a secondary school attract the right people to work with the most vulnerable and needy students when the headteacher still refuses to advertise TA jobs properly, claiming it is an unjustified expense when ‘word of mouth’ will do? It’s like the old vaudeville joke about the bloke applying for a handyman’s job who couldn’t do anything in that line, but who claimed he qualified as ‘handy’ because he just lived around the corner! The trouble is, when it is your child who comes into daily contact with this person, the joke loses what little humour it had.
We, all 300,000 of us, need to get our act together, and drag the reluctant dinosaurs into this century. Try something for me, will you? Ask about training for your job, and if you want to specialise, see what courses on ‘-isms’ and ‘-xias’ etc. are available in your area, because these courses are for you, and the students you work with deserve the best, not the cheapest, option. If you attend an interview for a school support job, make a point of asking what the school can do for you, what are the career prospects, and if they, like the academy sponsor who came to one of my previous schools with glorious plans for the teaching staff, but who stared at me like I’d just hit him in the face with a frozen halibut when I asked him his plans for TA career enhancement, my advice would be to ‘run like a bunny in the opposite direction’ because “…Erm…well…we really do value what teaching assistants do…erm…” just ain’t good enough anymore!
Ask for specifics; do they want a Teaching Assistant to assist teachers in a certain department as a specialism working with all (and I mean, all) abilities of student, or do they want Learning Support, trained to work with students with specific problems, or do they want a Learning Mentor, guiding all abilities throughout their school life? The possibilities are endless, what we need is appropriate training, a level of respect to reflect that status, and the proper pay levels that go along with it.
Personally, I will breathe a sigh of relief when I see our profession attracting as many male applicants as women, not simply being used as a stepping stone into teaching, but as a career choice in its own right. Only then will I forget “middle-aged women sitting with the ‘numpties’”.
Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants : How Research Challenges Practice and Policy. Blatchford, P. Russell, A. and Webster, R. Routledge (London and NewYork). 2012