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The kids love them, and the teachers couldn’t cope without them – so why the heck aren’t TAs recognised as the valuable professionals they are, asks Tom Starkey...
For Intelligent Planning, Think Penstripe
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Some of the most skilled, fierce, knowledgeable, caring, and downright impressive teachers that I’ve met in schools haven’t actually been teachers at all – they’ve been teaching assistants.
Throwing to the floor and sitting on a multitude of roles from emotional and pastoral support to academic, these edu-chameleons may have to help to reinforce figurative language one moment, give personal care to a student with limited mobility the next, and then go on the hunt for a conspicuously absent Y8 who has been flagged as having safeguarding issues straight after.
And that’s just before first break.
We talk about teaching and learning a lot in schools and if there’s one group of professionals I’ve learnt the most from, it’s teaching assistants.
Often placed in closer proximity to the students than I am (both in school and out) they’re the custodians of rich veins of golden information regarding the kids and what’s going on their lives.
These can be tapped to diffuse tricky situations before they kick off, give a greater insight into certain situations, or (my favourite) have a gossip about over a coffee and a bun. Or a beer.
In all fairness, in my experience, it’s mostly beer.
The teaching assistants I have worked with are fellow professionals. They are partners in my classroom and there have been numerous occasions where I literally could not have done my job without them.
In fact, there are certain aspects of my job that many of them have been better at than I ever will be (we’re talking about administrative organisation here, people; the amount of times my behind has been pulled out of the fire when a TA has taken a look over my shoulder and suggested that perhaps I really shouldn’t put that formula into that particular box unless I want the whole year’s progress to go waaaay into the negative isn’t something I care to share in public – but trust me, it’s significant).
This is why I’ll never fully understand the lack of respect from which teaching assistants often suffer.
I’m not talking about from students either. From what I’ve seen, there’s generally a lot of respect from the kids with whom teaching assistants work (alongside a whole load of love too).
Of course, they also bear the brunt of some particularly awful behaviours. But I reckon the chances are, if you ask any kid who their favourite member of staff is, a TA will be in the top three.
Unfortunately I’m talking about their treatment by schools, and in the wider education community.
This lack of respect can be found in factors such as barely adequate baseline pay, ill-defined roles (meaning that TAs often have to step in to teach without being paid for it), training and accreditation as an afterthought (which is ridiculous considering the highly specialised role that they fulfil), and a general lack of status within the system for which they work so damn hard.
I think a lot of this is to do with the still-prevalent hierarchical structure that schools use as a scaffold that puts TAs on a very low rung.
I also think a lot of it is to do with the willing exploitation of low-paid workers by more unscrupulous institutions.
And, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure there’s also an aspect of class snobbery thrown into the mix there, too.
The teaching assistant role is one that, due to its very nature and the aspects that it encompasses, should demand a huge amount of respect within the educational community.
Yet I rarely see this respect forthcoming. Until real value is placed on the difficult job that teaching assistants do, in even more difficult circumstances, this is unlikely to change.
So I say this: value the people who work with you in your classroom. Be a model of this in the place that you work in if it’s suffering from the problems I’ve described. Don’t let them disrespect your crew.
I talk a lot about advocating for teacher voice, well-being and the like, but teachers also have the opportunity to advocate for our colleagues if that’s what becomes necessary.
And in doing so, we might go some way towards causing a shift in attitude towards a group whose marginalised position, given that they are so close to the chalk face, is one that I find to be at best nonsensical, and at worst, negligent.
So here’s to the TAs. I would raise a drink to them all, but knowing that lot, it would lead me to an absolute stonking hangover in the morning.
Thanks for reading.
Tom Starkey is a teacher and writer who blogs at stackofmarking.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tstarkey1212.
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