NOTE: Sandra is not real, but her story represents the lived experiences of many teaching assistants in the UK today
Sandra has seen a lot in her 18 years at the school: three headteachers, a rebuild, an academisation, four Sendcos, tens of thousands of lessons…. She has also worked with thousands of vulnerable young people and their families in her role as a teaching assistant.
Not many people realise that Sandra has a degree in history of art. Most people don’t know that Sandra has four children at home, the eldest of whom has profound special educational needs. Quite a few teachers don’t seem to know Sandra’s name.
Sandra needs to bring in a salary to keep up with the rent and essential costs, though what not many people realise is that the salary she brings home barely equates to the minimum wage. She doesn’t get paid during the holidays. It’s some years since she and the family made it to the Sussex coast for a break.
Nevertheless, Sandra loves her job. She knows that she truly makes a difference: that, frequently, lots of people realise she is the only person in the school who knows how to de-escalate some children’s tantrums or spot from the other side of the assembly hall that they are likely to have a bad day and step in, light-touch, to ensure confrontations are avoided.
The invaluable teaching assistant
During weekends, while her husband is able to take over the childcare, Sandra has a second job at the local pub, where her skills at soothing, charming and de-escalating are appreciated almost as much.
Not many people know that Sandra was the one who offered comfort to a sobbing headteacher on his last day in the short-lived post, that she volunteers at the local food bank and that, when she was younger, she dreamed of travelling the world as a painter.
Last week, Sandra took three cover lessons. Two were last-minute "favours" and the third a lesson where whoever was supposed to be covering didn’t turn up. It doesn’t bother her, particularly – she’s perfectly capable of managing herself in a classroom – but it would have been nice if somebody had realised – and acknowledged – this.
Often, teachers won’t realise how valuable Sandra is until she’s not there, pulled out of lessons for exams invigilation or for a child’s medical appointment. Then they’ll notice a distinct change of atmosphere in the classroom and, for a moment or two, feel a little lost. Sandra appreciates it when teachers ask for her advice and feedback on their lessons. She knows that the support she’s provided for Callum the NQT during his mentor’s long-term absence has been valuable. The best lessons for Sandra are when she and the teacher are a team, batting ideas and humour around and modelling learning and humanity.
Sandra would love to progress in her career, but any training opportunities fall outside the hours when she is able to work and, unfortunately, during the last whole-staff Inset, somebody didn’t realise support staff would be there, forgot to include their names and instead they were left drifting a little at the edge of departmental meetings.
There is distinct unease in Sandra’s department at the moment. Talk of a restructure has begun. Staff leaving aren’t being replaced. Sandra can’t help but wonder at the piddly amount that might be saved by losing a few TAs compared to, say, an expensive SLT member, but tries not to let it bother her too much.
Last summer, a student with mobility issues for whom Sandra scribed and with whom she had worked throughout his GCSE got a grade 7 for history. Yesterday, Sandra cleaned up a pool of vomit because the site staff were too busy and she thought she might as well. Last week, Sandra visited a particularly troubled young man at his latest foster placement and he cried with relief when he saw her.
POSTSCRIPT: If you’re going for an interview at a school, make a beeline for the Sandras. They will give you an authentic insight into the school. If you are lucky enough to have a Sandra in your classroom, please take the time to find out her name and, ideally, a little bit about her. She’s got a lot to offer. Before you send the email to the head of year about the child who’s doing your head in, pick Sandra’s brain. The likelihood is that she sees that child in a variety of contexts, has followed them through the years, and she may even know the family. In our world of "impact", Sandra offers it in droves, though quietly, without pushing for acknowledgement and at great financial value.
Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching