In our Politics of Reading class, when we discuss the teaching profession in the United States, it sometimes seems like teachers have an enormous, thankless task, and are paid very little (in wages or respect) for their hard work, their dedication, and their professionalism.
Today I would like to talk about another casualty of the general lack of respect for the teaching profession in our country: teacher assistants.
Teacher assistants are an invaluable aid to classroom teachers, performing everything from delivering lessons when the teacher is away, to supervising students in their work in class, monitoring behavior, and performing the many routine tasks that would otherwise take up much of a teacher’s day, such as taking attendance, taking lunch orders and payments, field trip forms and payments, writing receipts, taking phone calls from parents.
They help mitigate the endlessly growing burden of documentation and paperwork that teachers must complete (including the electronic kind).
They work one-on-one and in small groups with children, helping them to understand their assignments and do their schoolwork.
They deliver children to and from their “specials” classes (art, music, language, computer lab, library, P.E.) and supervise lunch in the cafeteria and recess on the playground.
They are another set of eyes, ears, and hands, which in an elementary class setting of 20-25 young children, is not only helpful, but necessary. (Do you know how often young children suddenly, urgently, need to go to the bathroom or have toileting accidents; fall down and hurt themselves; throw up or have headaches or fevers or head lice and need to see the nurse; feel overwhelmed by the day and dissolve into tears or tantrums? The answer is frequently.)
Without teacher assistants, teachers would have little time to teach.
Yet teacher assistants in my relatively well paid school district in North Carolina usually earn between $20,327-$24,601 a year. The median annual Teacher Assistant salary in my school district is the princely sum of $21,139. That is based on a 40 hour work week, according to the state salary schedule for “non certified employees,” making it a living wage for the local metropolitan area for a single adult with no dependents; but it does not come close to a living wage if the wage earner has a child.
The cheapest apartment rental I could find from a quick internet search in the district, where the cost of real estate is high, was a studio apartment for $675 a month, which comes to $8100 a year. With the remaining $13,039 (from the median salary), teacher assistants must pay for food, clothing, utilities, and possibly child care. That means that most of the TAs I know cannot afford to live within the district, and must commute (and now you have to factor in the cost of gas).
I wish I could say that is merely the starting salary, and that the pay leaps upward after the first year; but in fact teacher assistants in my district have not received a pay raise in years. One of my former coworkers, a highly respected exceptional children teacher assistant, told me that she had not received a raise in 11 years–she was still earning exactly what a brand new teacher assistant would earn–about $2,000 a month (with no pay for summer vacation).
You can add year to year job instability to the list of drawbacks to this profession: every year, the state legislature debates the educational budget, and teacher assistants are always near the top of the possible cuts.
Teacher assistants never know if they will have a job for the following school year. Often, teacher assistants don’t receive the call that they are hired for the new school year until August. One year, in my memory, a potential pay raise for teachers was debated against keeping teacher assistants–meaning it was possible teachers would be paid more, but only at the cost of losing their assistants.
Teaching is a gendered profession: most elementary school teachers are women. That is even more true of teacher assistants. In fact, almost every job to do with young children is to some extent considered (consciously or unconsciously) “women’s work.” Perhaps that is the root of why the work teachers and teacher assistants do is so undervalued.
We cannot, as a society, reasonably hold the teaching profession responsible for educating all children to meet or exceed standards, despite enormous social inequity, and simultaneously regard it with suspicion and disrespect. We can’t logically require dedication, hard work, and professionalism while refusing to pay for it.
But we do; and that is likely because on some level we believe that teachers and teacher assistants (usually women, at the elementary level) should teach and care for children out of natural inclination and the goodness of their hearts. Thus we say in one breath that the work the teaching profession does is of utmost importance but not deserving of reasonable pay and professional autonomy; that teachers can level the unequal societal playing field and must be penalized for not doing so.
Teacher assistants typically do not have the level of education that teachers do. However, without teacher assistants, the burden of teaching would be even heavier. Teacher assistants could use some respect, specifically in the form of better pay and better job stability: without them, teachers would have less time to teach, and some learning would inevitably have to be sacrificed in order to maintain classroom functioning. This is a lesson our legislators and educational reformers badly need to learn.