Nice work and we'll keep it

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh meets the happy helpers. There are, if all the stories are true, some unhappy teachers about, and there may even be some unhappy heads. Whistling caretakers, too, I fancy, are more uncommon than they used to be.

If there are any miserable classroom assistants, however, I have yet to meet them - and I write as someone who is married to a classroom assistant and who has met many others both professionally and socially.

Take the three I talked to recently at St Giles Middle School in North Warwickshire - Avril Willett, Jennie Walden and Vivienne Whiteside.

All of them do a considerable amount of work with children and Avril, particularly, also does a wide range of general duties - attendance calculations, photocopying, driving the minibus. All of them quite obviously enjoy what they do. Jennie Walden, judging by the nods of agreement, spoke for all of them when she said, "It's one of those rare jobs where although it's nice to have the money, we actually do it because we like it."

Each one of these three started, like most classroom assistants, as a parent volunteer helper. Given, therefore, that there was a time when they were happy to work for nothing, it is perhaps not so surprising that they like doing the job for money. Where exactly, though, does satisfaction come from? "Well you have to enjoy being with children," said Avril Willett, who has been at the school for 18 years - considerably longer than any other member of staff.

She drives children to the swimming baths every week and, "I've been on several residential trips, including a couple to France. You form a different relationship with children on trips like that."

The most satisfaction, though, comes from seeing children's progress. Many - perhaps most - classroom assistants spend a lot of time working with children individually or in small groups. Often, these children, even if they are not statemented for special needs, have learning problems, and if the assistant is skilled and sympathetic a very special relationship can develop which is quite different from that between a teacher and her class.

As Jennie Walden explained, "You get to know the child and form a relationship. Then when you get through the tearing-the-hair stage, suddenly this little light goes on and you go full steam." She and the other assistants value this relationship very much, seeing it as their own unique contribution to the school's work. "We're listeners," said Vivienne Whiteside. "We're there for their problems, in all sorts of ways and not just with their educational needs."

So strong is this feeling that, for Jennie at least, it has affected her thinking about going on to be a teacher.

"It occurs to me repeatedly" explained Jennie, "that although I could go off to teacher training, I might lose that individual relationship that I like so much. If I had a class of 28 it would be a different ball game."

Vivienne agreed, but pointed out that for her, and for many others, there are other constraints. "I'd have to stop what I'm doing now and go to university for four years, and I don't think I could do that."

Which prompts the question as to whether converting a good classroom assistant into a newly qualified teacher really should take four years of higher education.

One answer is that there should be more training for classroom assistants, and that whatever qualification follows should exempt them from part of a teacher education course. The Specialist Teacher Assistant (STA) programme is starting to address this, as are some independent higher education and local authority initiatives, but there is still some way to go.

Meanwhile, the assistants themselves long for some sort of training. "I'd pay my own fee," said Jennie Walden. "A piece of paper can open doors, and would help if we ever had to move on."

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