When I first began teaching, teacher aides worked one to one with individual children. They were almost always ORRS funded students. They attended to all of the needs of that one student. They attended IEP meetings and filled out homework notebooks to communicate with parents. If they had ‘downtime’ they made resources and often tidied up the art area!
I cringe at this now, but at the time it was what happened. It worked well for that individual student as far as one to one care and attention went. However, socially and emotionally, these students were often isolated. Their closest relationship at school was with their teacher aide, and then the teacher. They rarely, if ever, worked with others. We thought at the time that these students were being ‘included’ just by being in a mainstream class. There is very little similar to how we operate and define inclusion now.
This is how we began our journey at TKAS with our teacher aides. Teacher and teacher aides alike had come from the old model. Over the last five years we have adapted our teacher/teacher aide/student model to encompass everyone as a learner. Our teacher aides have professional development on a regular basis with the principal. They are invited to attend all annual induction hui, meetings and whole staff professional development as well. Teacher aides and teachers now understand each other’s roles more clearly. Technology has had a large role to play in this inclusion of teacher aides in professional development as well as in discussions about the classroom. This meant that we had to ensure our teacher aides had access to the same technology as we do, and so they were issued with laptops. In a high-tech school, it was remiss for them not to have had them. All planning is online, which can be accessed by all community team members. Communication is face to face or through email, the school forum or the Wunderlist app, as are the sites that contain the teacher aides Professional Learning, where they record any professional development, professional readings, reflections, observations and goals. Teacher aides are busy people outside of their school life and so finding an effective way to communicate that suited everyone was imperative. Planning and communication became more transparent, whilst guarding and respecting the individual students rights to privacy regarding anything personal, most communication is shared with all staff in a learning community. This has helped teacher aides act more responsively to children’s learning needs.
In class, our teacher aides take workshops. They collaborate with staff. Although they don’t plan learning, they sometimes facilitate it, supported by teachers. They are encouraged to ask questions and give opinions and ideas. They work alongside students as much as teachers do and they know the students as well as teachers do, sometimes, even better. They are another pair of eyes and ears in the class. They see and hear things that teachers may not and instead of having a close relationship with one child, they have relationships with all of the students in the community. Working this way enables teachers to work in small groups or one to one with individuals who need it. Whilst it’s accepted that some students require one to one support, the teacher aides in this study work with any student that requires that support in their learning community. There are certain students that they and the teachers check in with more often, so that no one is left floundering or anxious. All students are seen to ask for or accept assistance when required. Open communication between team members makes sure that everyone is aware of where and what certain students are doing at any given time.
We hope our teacher aides feel valued. We couldn’t do what we do without them. Funding for teacher aides is expensive, but well worth the investment. It would be great if the ministry acknowledged the importance of teacher aides in the classroom and made provision for their positions to be more permanent, paid them what they are worth and funded outside of schools operation grants.
The role of teacher aides has changed dramatically. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, a need was identified to change the learning behaviour of the individual students who worked with teacher aides. The move included the necessity for students to see themselves as included individuals and no different to students in the rest of the class. The need for this was more apparent as students got older, especially in years six to thirteen. Improving this has meant that students’ independence has increased, and single dependence on their teacher aide has decreased. Secondly, it was recognised that teacher aides, who were valued in the classroom, somehow, were not seen as team members, or as observers or participants in discussions about the classroom community as a whole. It was necessary to include all teacher aides in all professional development and team discussions. It was also recognised that they see things happening in the classroom that teachers may be unaware of and their contributions were as important and as valid as any of the teachers. Whilst from an administration point of view, this is expensive; the payoff for students and staff is immense.
In conclusion, the culture of the school defines how teacher aides understand their roles and responsibilities. Growing a school culture that enables all individuals to grow professionally and seek their own professional development as well as attend in school professional development, keeps all players on the same page and better armed to be more responsive to student’s learning. Open communication and working as a team, enables better outcomes for all involved.