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To TA or Not to TA, That Is the Question

By Shirley Dever
To TA or Not to TA, That Is the Question

Few would argue that with a qualified, trained Teacher Assistant (TA) that the classroom runs more smoothly, more learning is accomplished and that each child feels nurtured and cared for to a greater degree than with a single teacher.
Unfortunately, learning in the specialist classroom is often times not considered as important as in the regular classroom. Specialist teachers have a huge class load that spans several grade levels. They are usually responsible for programs and after-school activities and are often the public relations ambassadors to the wider community.
Yet, these subjects are relegated to a second-tier status, as evidenced by the lack of support given to the teachers and students in these classrooms. Is this the message that we want to be sending to students? Are specialist classes less valued in a system where all subjects are supposed to be seen as equal?
During a school day filled with rote learning, memorization and little inquiry learning, perhaps a TA is not seen as necessity. Students sit at their desks, all learning the same material at the same speed. Teachers spend planning time grading papers and settling disciplinary matters. There is little time for creative thought.
In the PYP world of learning, however, it is the responsibility of the teacher to provide the students with a learning environment that allows for self-directed, differentiated inquiry. There is time for collaborative learning and for the teacher to meet with students to help them along their paths of discovery. This process requires an extraordinary amount of planning, organization, and teacher availability. Within many primary schools, classrooms have been provided with a support staff to further facilitate student inquiry.
Oftentimes, that same extra support is not extended to specialist classrooms. Not only do the classroom teachers and TAs have daily face-to-face time with students, support is often given for the EAL students and students who may need Learning Support. This extra support may be given in pullout sessions and/or support given within the regular classroom.
Specialist teachers, who often see the students far less frequently and for shorter amounts of time, are often given no in-class support for the EAL or LS student. Yet, they are held responsible for the progress of these students and all students without additional help. Specialist teachers are measured against the same criteria as the classroom teacher who is given extra support in the form of an assistant and other educational specialists.
TAs are valuable members of the school collective and contribute much to the well being of the school. In addition to putting up bulletin boards, laminating, making copies, grading papers, helping with tech problems and taking recess duty, they teach. They are the extra pair of hands that allow a teacher to make a difference in being able to spend extra time with a struggling child and seeing that each child does indeed feel nurtured and special.
The TA often has a relationship with students that extends over several years. Many Teacher Assistants have been in the school longer than the classroom teacher and can give insights into the child that are invaluable. TAs see students in different contexts. They assist in lunch, recess and in the hallways between classes. They act as liaisons between classroom teachers and the specialists and act as translators for new students and parents. They are indispensable and work for minimal financial compensation.
If we say that all subjects are equal in the PYP system, then why are schools not extending the same courtesy to all teachers to ensure that student learning is maximized and the same support is given to all teachers?
So back to Shakespeare. Does the specialist teacher remain silent and accept things the way they “have always been,” or rail against the disparity and thereby, perhaps, end the system for all? The “cruelest arrow” is the remark from a child in a specialist classroom who says she doesn’t feel nurtured because there wasn’t enough time during the day.
Shirley Dever teaches music at the American International School of Guangzhou.

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