‘I’ve never known kids as anxious as they are today’

It can take up to 20 minutes to extricate children from their parents in the morning, according to this teaching assistant who spoke to Nick Duerden on condition of anonymity. She has worked at a primary in South West London for four years and despite its pressures, loves a job that never bores her.   

“The question of what the difference is between a teacher and a teaching assistant is a good question, actually. The longer you do it, the longer you see the roles overlap. Essentially, an assistant supports the teacher, and the pupils, primarily with Maths and English.

You also do lunchtime duty, supervising in the playground. It’s all very straightforward, and you don’t have to initiate much. Plus, your job finishes at 3.30pm, so when the bell goes, that’s your day done – while teachers, of course, then have to do all their marking, which can take up their evenings and weekends, and plenty of forward planning. There’s a lot of paperwork in teaching.

I suppose we’re the bridge between teacher and pupil, and the aim is to support the teacher by understanding the areas of weakness within specific children. So, if there’s a child in class who has, say, an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) – which is obtained after a GP referral to a psychologist – then we support them as needed.

I have one child with an EHCP that I support at the moment, and she’s getting on well with the tasks, so as soon as I know that she understands what she’s doing, I float around the class supporting any other pupils, as and when they require my help.

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A lot of children have a lot of different needs, so each will have an educational plan set in place. This means that, by law, they need to have a certain amount of hours that we, the assistants, are supporting them. Each is supposed to get about 15 hours per week.

Teaching assistants don’t exactly carry the teacher, but we definitely help out in areas where they may be struggling. And as I say, the longer you do this job, the more responsibility you take on. I have a new role now, offering additional emotional literacy support – which was another full year of training, in addition to my year’s teaching assistant training – where you support those with emotional needs, and a range of issues, including bereavement, self-esteem; whatever the individual child happens to be facing. This can be a lot of work, but there’s no pay rise. It’s just as well I love the job.

Since Covid, we’re being asked to cover classes more and more, too, whenever teachers are sick. Not Maths and English, necessarily, but a lot of the other subjects. For that, we do get more money. Otherwise, our pay remains low, I suppose because we’re seen as “assistants”, and not “proper” teachers.

The kids I teach are seven and eight years old, Year 3, and so while they may not be as problematical as secondary school kids, there’s still a lot of issues. They may have separation anxiety, for example. I’m not sure if it’s from Covid, but we’re seeing so much more separation anxiety these days. I’ve never seen it this bad. It can take upwards of 20 minutes to extricate them from their parents at the beginning of the day, and then accompany them to the classroom. Another girl I’m currently supporting recently lost her father. He killed himself, and that’s hit her really hard. She finds it difficult to come into school, and leave her other family members, who look after her. And there are many other kids, too – so many issues. It’s so sad.

It definitely keeps you on your toes, this job. I help run the school’s summer camps, which is available for children on free school meals. Here, they’re guaranteed meals, and activities, and support through August. Last year, one child was trying to escape, and when I intervened, he tried to bite me. He then climbed up a fence, and when I reached up to stop him – and to stop him from hurting himself – he kicked me.

Of course, it’s not always like that, it’s mostly really rewarding, and a lovely environment to be in. You’re supporting people, you’re helping, and even when things are negative, you’re looking into how you can turn it around into a positive. That can make it feel like the best job in the world.

I do sometimes think about leaving, and getting a better job – a better paid job – but I think I’d be bored. In a school, with children, you can never be bored.”

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