Classroom assistants don't seem to have much going for them. They're paid a pittance, they supervise lunchtimes in bitter weather, the children often give only grudging respect, and they'll be the ones who sit in emergency departments with sick children for hours while the school attempts to contact a parent on a mobile that's usually switched off.
Certainly the job has changed over the years, and it's more interesting now. When I was a class teacher, my school had three "helpers", but they dispensed milk, washed paintpots, brewed tea for teachers on playground duty, or tried to control classes during rainy playtimes while teachers had a quick break. Nobody had really explored the notion that they could be helpful educationally. Nowadays, helpers are "support assistants", vital cogs in the educational wheel and enjoying as much work variety as the average teacher. If there's going to be a fight, or if Year 5 gangs up on Year 6 after the usual rule-free chaotic football game, it's the support assistants who sort it out, because by the time a teacher gets there, it's usually too late. Which brings me to Lorraine.
Lorraine was the kind of support assistant you want them all to be. I remember the day she came in, looking for a place for her son. We were full and, though he was an exceptionally pleasant boy, I had to turn them away. Then, before they'd left the building, one of my teachers mentioned that she'd just passed a woman in the bottom corridor who was saying to her son how attractive the school seemed, and what a shame it was that there were no places. I sent a child downstairs to find them, and Lee had a place the next day. Soon, Lorraine joined us too, working full time as a support assistant.
From the start, her talents were remarkable. Her warm personality and delightful humour ensured she related well to everyone. Children, especially those with special needs, made rapid progress with her, and she'd spend hours at home preparing interesting things for them to do. Perhaps because she'd been through a disastrous relationship hersel, she had great empathy with children who were going through various family crises that affected them deeply. Fights and major arguments in the playground dwindled; she had the knack of dissolving tension with well-aimed humour and the talents of a skilful judge and jury. She was artistic, too, and a meticulous model-maker, demonstrating in assembly how she created Victorian doll's houses that could have sold in the finest toy shops. Her talents extended in every direction. Need a complex costume for the school play or a work display completed because the inspectors are visiting? No problemI ask Lorraine.
We thought the world of her. And then, shortly after her 38th birthday, we found out she had cancer. She'd had stomach trouble for some time, and been prescribed various pills and potions, but ultimately a scan revealed the worst. Determined to overcome this latest difficulty in her life - after all, she'd overcome the others - she tackled chemotherapy with a grim determination and, apart from her hospital sessions, was seldom away from the job she loved. Support from colleagues was abundant. She struggled on, determined that her friends, colleagues and children at the school should never know how ill she really was. I remember coming down a staircase and finding her close to tears at the bottom. She'd just returned from the hospital. I stopped on the stairs, took hold of her, and gave her a hug. I felt totally helpless.
A month later she was dead. This gentle, kind and unbelievably brave woman had given 10 years of dedicated service to us and been much loved for it. The funeral was some distance away, and I took the unprecedented step of closing the school so that all of us could attend. Just two parents objected - one saying it would be inconvenient to keep her child at home that day and the fact that somebody had died "really wasn't her problem".
Lorraines may be few and far between, but there are plenty of support assistants doing a brilliant job every day, often with little thanks. Perhaps you ought to find the nearest one in your school now... and give her a hug.
Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, Camberwell, south London Email: email@example.com