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Talk-ED: In Praise of Teacher Aides


Written by Marilyn Gwilliam, Principal, Papatoetoe Central School


In Praise of Teacher Aides – Where would we be without them?

The totally amazing teams of teacher aides in schools in New Zealand just can’t be done without.  It is a simple fact.  Noone I know would dispute this.  Each day these wonderful people go to work in schools around the country, mostly cheerfully and willingly, and do they make a difference?  Yes they surely do, without a shadow of a doubt.

What do teacher aides do?

Their daily tasks are varied depending on the needs of the students in the school. They may work with students who have no idea how to behave themselves. There has been recent publicity about the increase in extreme behaviours in some schools in Northland with students unable to self regulate, who can be very violent and use the most appalling language.  This increase in highly challenging behaviours is not restricted to just the northern parts of NZ.

It is indescribable how frightening it can be for teacher aides working with such students.  Their personal safety is highly at risk and the safety of other students and other school staff may also be also at risk.

These days there are virtually no schools, units and classes to cater for students with special needs and considerations in NZ.  As a result, students with very high and complex needs attend their local schools.  These challenging students are supported by teacher aides who are funded by the MOE Intensive Wraparound Service (IWS), a “mixed model of intensive support”.

These students are placed in regular classrooms with a teacher aide and supported by IWS personnel and associated programmes to address a range of severe behavioural, emotional, neurological and cognitive issues.  Teacher aides can find themselves participating in very lengthy meetings that are attended by numerous professionals, all intent on supporting regular schools to maintain the enrolment of highly disruptive and demanding students.

Often, each professional develops a plan or part of a plan, after a series of observation and other forms of data collection, both in and outside of the classroom. School personnel are subsequently faced with implementing plans from a range of professionals within the MOE “mixed model”, while maintaining the regular class programme for all the other students in the class.  This is very demanding and complex work for all concerned.

So much, and many people would say far too much, is expected of the personnel on the ground in the schools and teacher aides are often at the front line.

Also on the increase in our schools are students with varying degrees of autism requiring teacher aide support. These students can also be demanding and challenging.  There are many teacher aides who work with students who have been diagnosed with global developmental delay or who have a specific learning disability.  Many also work with students who have physical disabilities and these teacher aides may be required to assist them with not only their learning, but also their personal needs, health and hygiene requirements.

A number work with students who are learning English.  There are 31,378 students in 1289 schools in NZ currently, who speak little or no English.  Most schools employ teacher aides to work with these students in their early English language acquisition.  This can be incredibly rewarding work as many immigrant students become bi-lingual, maintaining their home language, while learning English with ease.

So the daily life of the teacher aide in these classrooms is never dull.  It is often challenging and complex yet it can be rewarding and very fulfilling, because the teacher aides themselves, make it so.  Their own positive attitude and disposition, combined with deep caring and empathy ensure that students who receive teacher aide support in our schools are getting such a good deal.

How do teacher aides feel about their work?

They generally see their role as offering support and practical help for the teacher and the student concerned.  They care deeply about the students they work with.  Recently a teacher aide was heard to say; “They get into my heart and they get under my skin.”  They develop bonds of trust and are often able to uncover hidden strengths and skills in their students.

Carol Dweck, an influential psychologist,  describes the importance of beliefs or mindsets in relation to performance.  Many of our teacher aides have an absolute belief in what Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset” where they firmly believe that the students they work with can learn.  In Dweck’s terms, they believe that the hand their students are dealt, is just the starting point.

Teacher aides enjoy celebrating the small achievements and the tiny steps along the way, they want the very best for their students and there is immense enjoyment and total satisfaction in helping to build their confidence.

So where indeed would we be without them?  There is no way teachers can do what is being asked of them in NZ today, without the support of these simply wonderful people. Principals and teachers know that teacher aides support some of the most important learning that goes on in our schools with some of our most “special” students.

And are they worth their weight in gold?  Yes they surely are, without a shadow of a doubt.


Published inEducation

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