Teaching assistants – just part of the job?

Linking in to my recent review of Working with Asperger Syndrome in the Classroom by Gill Ansell, this post is going to briefly introduce a topic that comes up often enough if you Google it, has appeared in multiple news sources, and is discussed by teaching assistants themselves quite regularly and yet very little seems to be being done about it.

In the afore mentioned book, there is a section where Ansell writes about getting on with her job through punches, kicks and other forms of physical violence. There’s almost a martyr like quality sometimes in these books – I’ve read on multiple occasions teaching assistants and teachers talking about “keeping their cool and just getting on with that part of their job”. Some teaching assistants reading this will already have been told that being bit, kicked, punched, and so on is just “part of their job”

Think about that again. Teaching assistants who are paid, on average, between £9,000 and £14,000 a year for the work that they do are being told that it is part of their job to put up with physical injury. Many do not get hazard pay or similar.

I know teaching assistants who were told this by their Senior Leadership team shortly after one of their colleagues had been hospitalised.

If you go onto any forum for special educational needs, and particularly autism, and start a discussion then it won’t be long before the same sentiment arises.

“It’s just part of the job”

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out the kitchen”

Then the one-upping might start. Where people talk more and more about the challenging behaviour they’ve experienced and the injuries they’ve had. Some will carry on with the “it’s not big deal” approach and belittle anyone who admits to struggling.

When topics like this come up on autism forums then there are another load of comments that quickly follow:

“Autistic people are never violent unless you’re doing something wrong”

“You must be doing something to upset him/her”

So now we’ve got a teaching assistant looking for support who has essentially been told “suck it up, it’s part of your job, I’ve dealt with much worse and it’s probably all your fault anyway”.

So then people don’t write about their problems and they stop reaching out and asking for help and very soon everyone can pretend that these occurrences are so infrequent that they’re barely even worth talking about. It’s just…they’ve not gone anywhere, it’s that no-one talks about them any more.

Do some teaching assistants make situations worse? Even cause the incidents that are mentioned above? Absolutely – some certainly do. Do they all? No.

Even when there is an identifiable issue, it’s often something completely out of the teaching assistant’s control. Teaching assistants often have very little say in the school – especially one-to-one teaching assistants. So even when the cause of the biting or kicking can be found (and it can’t always, despite discussions with the child, their family, or copious use of ABC or STAR charts) – it may not be something the teaching assistant can do anything about.

The problem might be above them.

The problem might be something that no-one can change.

Teaching assistants often need more training, especially in working with students with autism and other special needs, but that doesn’t mean that being kicked and punched should just be “part of their job” and it certainly doesn’t mean that the issue should be ignored by conveniently dumping all the blame on the teaching assistants.

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Cuts, cuts, cuts…

I imagine that a similar situation is playing out in other countries around the world right now – but this week for me has been a week of watching the funding for services for people with special educational needs or disabilities get cut.

I left my job working in a school because I could no longer cope with the disaster that was the special educational needs department. Even with distance I am kept up-to-date with the chaos through my old colleagues (don’t join a WhatsApp with old work-mates if you want to be kept “in the dark” about this kind of stuff). I read as teaching assistants were cut, resource budgets were cut, as students were reassigned again and again. I read about students I used to work with displaying increasingly disregulated behaviour – lashing out, biting, hitting – as their whole academic world was restructured around them. I read about teaching assistants being told they were now responsible for two or three students with moderate to severe special educational needs. I read about old colleagues getting sick, getting hurt, developing mental health problems…

Then in my current job I watched it from another angle – I watched as the news unfolded about projects designed specifically for people with disabilities being cut to make room for more “relevant” work. I watched as the organisation released blog posts and twitter posts. I realised that the projects for those with disabilities was being cut because they didn’t bring with them big headlines; they didn’t get the kind of attention the organisation wanted.

It doesn’t take much searching online to discover story after story about the failings of the SEND system; about the cuts to services and projects designed for people with disabilities. If you really want to you can find pages of how schools are at breaking point – and how this is failing students. What makes this even harder to deal with is the fact that the UK is actually quite far ahead of many other places worldwide when it comes to special educational needs and disabilities – and then you hear stories about how much worse it is in those other places.

I saw things that made me angry during my time in special education – I dread to think how much worse things will get if these cuts continue.

Silencing his voice

Those who know me know that I have recently moved to employment out of the education system because I found myself completely disillusioned with education, particularly the provision for Special Educational Needs where I predominantly worked during my career in education. I could write any number of posts discussing various issues I saw during my time in schools – and over time I probably will – but I thought I would start with one that has bothered me ever since I witnessed it.

One student in Key Stage 2 had recently had a Cochlear Implant. He had been involved in the decision making process with his parents and had said that this was what he wanted. The procedure went ahead with no complications and he returned to school. Part of his programme of adjustment for his cochlear implant was to complete daily listening based activities. I was not involved in this so don’t know the exact details of what these were, but I do know he worked with one of the male teaching assistants for half an hour each day to complete them. That same teaching assistant also supported him in class as the student was still adjusting to the cochlear implants and I guess hearing everything in a different way.

Then the school decided to shuffle staff around (a subject on which I could fill pages of rants) and a new staff member was assigned to work with the student. One day I was working in the room where this student went to have his meeting/assessment with the specialist assigned to him. The new teaching assistant was present. I wasn’t really paying much attention to them – having my own work to do – until the student raised his voice, clearly frustrated.

“I’ve already told my parents I don’t want to go into a Resource Provision and I don’t want to have a teaching assistant all day either!”

Whilst I was sitting there being quite impressed at the young man’s confidence in self-advocacy, the whole situation was made altogether more uncomfortable by the professional’s response:

“Now you don’t mean that, think about how you’re hurting Miss’s feelings by saying that. It will be good for you to go to a Resource Provision. We’ll talk about it with your parents”

I regret now not turning around and saying something to that professional. I know that being autistic makes it hard for me to get involved in any social situation, let alone a potentially emotionally charged one, but I still get moments where I feel like I let that student down. I did go and speak to the Higher Level Teaching Assistant about the possibility of slightly altering the deployment of the student’s TA so that he didn’t feel lie he was stuck to an adult; and I did speak to the Learning Mentors about how his voice had been ignored. I still feel like I should have said something to the professional though…

I worked hard to make sure the “voices” (used figuratively) of the non-verbal, autistic students I supported were heard, and it really bothered me to see this professional completely brush aside the views of this young man and patrionise him at the same time by telling him he didn’t mean what he was saying. This student knew what worked and what didn’t work for him. He didn’t want to be placed into a Resource Provision unit in Secondary school and he wanted his Teaching Assistant contact time reduced – why was it so difficult for that professional to acknowledge his views? Acknowledge his voice? Respect what he had to say as a valuable contribution to his ongoing provision?

If the voices of those who are verbal are so easily ignored despite the recommendations from the SEND CoP (DfE/D0H, 2015), then what chance is there of the views of those who are non-verbal being listened to and respected?