Not 'only'. More like 'essential'

8th April 2005 at 01:00
Many teaching assistants are highly qualified professionals. So why are we treated so dismissively, asks Jan Eales

As a teaching assistant in a rural infant school, I don't object to earning a gross hourly rate of pound;5.68, even though it may be less than a sixth-former earns in a hamburger bar.

Nor do I resent being asked to teach some basic Spanish to the children as part of my duties, as I happen to be almost fluent. I even relish the challenge of spending a great deal of my working day with two demanding special needs children, and I don't really protest at not being paid for lunchtimes. Not even the fact that I'm employed on a daily basis without any entitlement to sickness or holiday pay can dampen my enthusiasm.

But what really does get under my skin is the attitude of some people to those of us who work in supporting roles. A friend who teaches in another school has often described her classroom assistant to me as "just a housewife-type person", thereby making massive assumptions about this woman's life before she had children. I have found this patronising attitude fairly widespread (although not in my school); some people seem to find it impossible to say "teaching assistant" without qualifying the noun with "just" or "only". So, for the benefit of those who assume we are "just mums and housewives", here's a gentle reminder of our capabilities I have a first-class honours degree, a master's from a fairly prestigious university and, until the birth of my son four years ago, I was working as an environmental consultant earning significantly more than a teacher. I'm not so naive as to expect an hourly rate that reflects my previous earning capacity, and I am well aware that it was my decision to bring up my son myself rather than pay somebody else to do it, but is it too much to expect a degree of open-mindedness about my life before I returned to the classroom?

And it's not just me. I have looked at the options for obtaining qualified teacher status, and it seems that some classroom experience is deemed essential before you can be considered for a PGCE course. Schools up and down the land must be full of mature, highly qualified individuals gaining classroom experience on the first rung of the retraining ladder after making family-unfriendly choices at university.

So teachers, take a fresh look at your "little helpers" and please don't assume we don't have two O-levels to rub together.

Jan Eales lives in West Yorkshire

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