An inspector calls...

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Even a sign from above is not enough to distract classroom assisstant Pamela McSwiggan from the job she really loves, writes Douglas Blane

Immediately after the ICT in Practice Awards, Pamela McSwiggan was approached by a tall man in a dark suit.

"You should train to be a teacher," he told her. "The profession needs people like you."

"How do you know?" Pamela asked.

"Because it is my job to recognise good teachers when I see them," he replied.

Pamela then discovered that the man was one of Scotland's most senior HM Inspectors. His encouraging words highlighted a dilemma faced by any learning assistant, classroom assistant or pupil support assistant.

"I've thought about becoming a teacher," Pamela says a week later, but I'd have to give up my job to train, and I don't want to do that."

The poor pay - less than that paid at a supermarket check-out - and occasional dismissive comment from others in education sometimes rankle, Pamela admits. But she believes strongly that the job is valuable in itself. Class-committed each morning while spending afternoons in the computer suite, Pamela nowadays plays a central role in ICT at St Mary's primary school, Glasgow. Four years ago, when she was first appointed, things were very different.

"Ididn't know how to turn a computer on," she recalls. "I learned a lot from Maureen Balloch, our ICT co-ordinator... and from the kids. At first you're scared of looking stupid. But I soon realised that if I didn't know I had to ask. I also attended ICT evening classes at the school."

Pamela's own journey from ICT novice to Becta award-winner lends a perspective that helps her identify with teachers taking their own tentative steps with technology.

"One teacher who wasn't confident with ICT asked for help with Clicker4 (see page 26)," she says. "I gave her lots of ideas about how to make up the grids and I think I frightened her off. So next time her class came to the computer suite, I had already made grids for them to use. When the teacher saw them in action, she wanted to sit down and talk to me again.

This time she was coming up with ideas herself. That's what teachers are like."

In supporting the ICT co-ordinator, Pamela rapidly grew in confidence and expertise. Nowadays, she functions at a high level of autonomy, helping teachers, evaluating resources and websites, training other assistants, and being responsible for the day-to-day running of the computer suite.

While still responding to teachers' needs, she is now able to develop her own ideas, and prepare resources and materials to support learning, teaching and management. These include pupil certificates of achievement, planning and assessment forms, lists of researched and evaluated websites, computer suite timetables and a continually expanding bank of ICT materials and images with cross-curricular links.

She also organises and runs supported study groups and projects. "We wanted the infants to try using laptops, but thought they might be too heavy. So I suggested we get the older pupils to buddy the little ones and work together on a project to prepare a presentation. It worked really well and was just the cutest thing to watch."

It seems probable that Pamela will one day take the inspector's advice and train to be a teacher. She has already completed three years of an Open University degree in Childhood and Youth Studies, and is now working on the European Computer Driving Licence and learning to drive a car.

But the pupil support assistant's tireless activity does not appear to be motivated by conventional ambition for a better job. Rather she seems to be making up for the time before being appointed at St Mary's, when her own, now passionate, love of learning was still unsuspected.

"I like to make the most of what I have, at work and at home," says Pamela.

"You can want to do a lot with your life without aiming to drive straight there. Why shoot along the motorway when you can toddle along the road and enjoy the scenery?"


* It is far easier to support the learning of others if you are an active learner yourself.

* Be enthusiastic and flexible.

* Don't hesitate to learn from children, who can be very helpful with adults less confident with ICT than themselves.

* People learn in different ways and at different rates - try to be aware of these.

* When working with children make things fun, light-hearted and stimulating.


* elloughton13 A particularly child-friendly site whose resources are often used at St Mary's for topic work. Kids love it.


Also invaluable for topic work and for creating mind maps to support particular subjects.


A fun, interactive site that kids really enjoy


Ideal for every age group and used frequently by all St Mary's pupils

* index02060206_007.aspx Very useful for teachers and other staff. Covers different areas of the curriculum, while allowing older pupils to discuss current affairs, take votes and compare opinions.


* Interactive Whiteboard Staff and pupil training at St Mary's now takes place in the Smart Room, where new software is introduced and demonstrated, creating a fun, stimulating learning environment for pupils and teachers.

* Mind-mapping software MindGenius is used to research topics and prepare presentations, while producing valuable resource for future learning and teaching.

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