Reconsidering and Reflecting – Life as a First Time Teaching Assistant

I get in the car and take a deep breath of relief that the day is over. Today I have been smacked in the face twice by children at work, adding pain to the existing bruise I gained from walking into a door the day before (ha!). Both children have been diagnosed with autism and therefore had no control of their actions. In fact, it was probably my own slow reactions which caused me to get hurt. In addition, I then had a football kicked straight into my back while supervising on the playground (another accidental case – I figured maybe that’s why the other TA’s tended to stand on the edges and watch instead of patrolling the playground, why did I even think to go into the middle and get involved in play?!). These were just some minor blimps in another long day of my new life as a Teaching Assistant at a primary school.

After years of uncertainty, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life and no sight of anything interesting happening for myself in the near future, I took the plunge and decided to apply to university to train as a primary school teacher (a PGCE). I originally didn’t tell my parents I had applied, knowing that they would disapprove. Luckily, with the support of my referees and sister, I was able to put together a last-minute application, worrying that it was too late to get a place. I had expected to be offered a place at my home and previous Uni Oxford Brookes (which I was – after an interview), I thought my parents would at least be a little bit okay with that as I would be at home while I studied; therefore I had made peace with the thought that this would be the ultimate outcome. My second invitation for an interview came from University College London (UCL) and although the interview process was tough, I felt I did well. This led to an offer from UCL, throwing off my entire plan and peace of mind. There was no way I could turn down this second offer, though my dad was not convinced it was a good option – until a few weeks later when he suddenly told me to accept the UCL offer ASAP (shout out to the lecturer at Oxford Brookes who changed his mind – I could never!). 

So that’s how I ended up with a place at one of the UK’s top Universities and a future in teaching. None of the grown-ups in my family are remotely interested as this means nothing to them – “you should be focusing on getting married” they say. A girl can do both! Besides I don’t see a marriage happening any time soon, so I figured I may as well make something of myself in the meantime. Therefore, I will allow myself to be proud of my little achievements! My next step will be to convince my parents it would be more suitable for me to move to London so I can properly focus on the (apparently very intense) course and not worry about the four hours of daily travel I would have to go through if I stayed at home. I can already tell this will not go down well so have been avoiding it, but time is ticking so this is a conversation which will need to happen soon!

I have not previously worked in a primary school, other than two weeks spent in a Year 1 class as part of a placement on my Early Years Teacher training course. Therefore the decision to go into teaching (something I should have done years ago) was based on next to nothing other than the fact that I knew I enjoyed working with children more than I did with adults, and all I could envision for myself was a future of working with children – It’s the one thing I think I’m good at! I figured that training as a teacher could open up a variety of opportunities such as teaching in schools, teaching in other institutions (e.g. hospitals), private tutoring, home schooling, and so on. Teachers will always be needed, can work anywhere in the world, and their working schedule (though incredibly stressful) could fit well around a family life. Also, the role is seen as a professional one – something which is important to my dad, who has detested my nursery work for years. So, despite knowing how stressful it would be and how much it would cost (that dreaded university fees initially put me off studying ever again) there are many reasons why I chose this as a career path. That and the fact that I needed to do something with myself which didn’t involve moping around the house with a metaphorical dark cloud over my head. This is a goal that is achievable.

So, backstory over, back to my original point. After leaving the nursery I had worked at for 5 years (wow, I had actually committed to something!) I applied to teaching assistant jobs, ending up with a job offer from the same school I had previously carried out my placement in. I was over the moon, remembering how much I had enjoyed my time there 3 years ago, and so accepted with enthusiasm, the prospect of a fresh start looming. This would be my opportunity to gain some school experience before starting the teacher training, so I asked to be placed in a Key Stage 1 or 2 classroom for that purpose.

The last thing I had expected would be to end up in Reception (Foundation Stage). When I had previously been here on placement, I had spent a day in reception and that one day had left a bad impression on me so much so that I remember it so clearly to this day. So, going to work in that classroom 3 years later was not something I was looking forward to (that’s just my luck!). But I decided to make the most of it and learn what I could, hoping I would later be moved to another class (as I had originally been told I would be). As the term comes closer to an end this is now very unlikely to happen – I have been in Reception since I started the job in May.

(Skip to the end now to avoid unnecessary rambling)

I’ll try to explain a little bit of why I was disappointed with the situation I had ended up in – the way this had gone was certainly not how I expected. Note that was is the key word here…it did get better eventually! So, there I was, back in Early Years Education despite having just tried to leave it behind me – yes I was annoyed to say the least. I thought this would be simple enough, I already knew the contents of the Early Years Framework inside out, so I just applied that knowledge to my new role. The thing was, as I was only due to be there for a short time (until July), I wanted to fit in straight away – but what I didn’t think about was how long it actually takes to settle into a new job. 

The first few weeks had me rethinking my choice to enter the primary teaching world. Firstly, to this day I have not yet received an induction or any formal training from the school. This left me feeling constantly lost, physically and mentally. As it is my first time working in a school, it would have been great to have been given a bit of preparation, a basic overview of the school, where to find certain information and so on. Another TA started at the same time as me (also with no previous school experience) and is in the same predicament. We have both been put in the opposite classes we had originally applied for – she was intended for Reception but has been in Year 5 since starting. On interview day I was pleasantly surprised to find one of the parents I knew from the nursery working as a TA at the school. As she worked in the year group I was supposed to be placed in, I believe the reason I wasn’t was because the school had jumped to the unfair conclusion that we had a close relationship and therefore did not want us working together. 

Next, the way the class teachers treat the TA’s in their classes can tend to be demeaning. Understand that this is coming from me, someone who had little confidence to begin with and therefore I cannot speak for how the other TA’s feel about this. In previous workplaces I have either worked independently or have been in a supervisory position, so I am not used to being told what to do daily. I like coming into work and having control over what I am doing or knowing what to get on with. Since working here, every day is different so although I have a set timetable, it never goes to plan as I am moved from class to class, activity to activity, and so on. This is fine, as it helps me to test my skills on adapting. But sometimes it is not so great as I constantly have to check what I should be doing and where I need to be. Although the class teachers in both reception classes are lovely people, they have not been open to introducing me to the system or rules in their classrooms. They have spoken to each other about me right in front of me instead of talking to me directly. At a recent school meeting, we had been put into groups to complete a task as a team. I had been with three teachers (one of them being my class’ teacher) and two TA’s, both Asian (Pakistani) ladies. As the teachers discussed the topic among themselves, purposely leaving us out of the conversation (as though our opinions didn’t matter), we were left feeling awkward and uncomfortable. I won’t assume that all teachers are like this, surely most teachers treat their TA’s with a little more respect.

This leads me to the next point – from what I’ve seen, TA’s are amazing and appear to sometimes have the harder/more draining parts of the job. They are usually given the trivial tasks and are the ones who tend to deal with the challenging students. They go above and beyond their roles to do that extra part while being paid a lot less than they deserve. A lot of these TA’s are just as equally (or more) educated as the teachers but have chosen this job for their own reasons, there is no reason they should be treated with less importance.

I expected the children to be hard work, but I did not expect there to be so many of them with challenging behaviour. As this is an inclusive school, there is a large amount of children with SEN. I have been working with a child in my Reception class with SEN. He was only 4 when I started, and I was expected to sit with him during carpet activities. This did not go down well with either of us. I knew that a child this young was not going to warm up to a new adult easily, especially since all I did was sit next to him every group time and tell him to sit properly and listen every few seconds – something which he hated and therefore didn’t listen to a word I said. I thought that surely the class teacher would understand he would need space from me until he got used to me being in the class so he didn’t feel constantly suffocated by my presence, something which she eventually caught onto a few weeks after I mentioned it to her. I feel better about his and other children’s challenging behaviour daily, as I realise that they act the same with most adults and everyone struggles to cope when it comes to specific children. I just wished that someone had reassured me that I wasn’t doing a bad job as I had spent weeks thinking my game was weak! I missed my lovely nursery children! Compared to the school children, I would gladly take have taken on the pre-schoolers challenging behaviour again, at least they were short of smart comebacks! I assume that me starting near the end of the school year has done me no favours, as the children/teachers have already established a respectful relationship, and as a newbie I am someone they can attempt to walk all over. Well, I learnt behaviour management from the best, so I have not let that happen!

A few weeks into the job a parent made a ridiculously racist comment to the class teacher (not even regarding me but another TA in the year group), resulting in the teacher making a choice which was unnecessary. She stopped me from working with the child of that parent as she immediately assumed it was me this father had been referring to (I was the new person so was easier to blame). I went along with it, but on the inside this had me reeling with anger, as it felt like I was being punished because I was ‘wearing a headscarf’ (as that parent had described the TA). Yes, this makes no sense but I cannot comment further on what he said. I could go on for hours regarding this, but moving on…

The level of the work expected from the children in Reception is insane! Knowing how intense/formal Year 1 is, I can understand that a child in reception needs to be able to read and write a sentence before moving up. But the way the teachers treated the children shocked me at first. Instead of the caring praise and support I was used to giving, they tended to snap at the children if their work was not at the expected level, and appeared to disregard their feelings. To start with, it had me feeling for the children all the time. They are under 5 years old! In my opinion they should not be made to feel inadequate if they don’t understand something. But then again, I am inexperienced in this area – maybe my opinion will change by next year. Also, this is not always the case, and the longer I have spent in the two Reception classes the better I understand why it is sometimes necessary as it can be very challenging controlling a class of 30 young children who just want to play. There is a lot to get though in a day, and the teachers are under a lot of pressure to make sure these children achieve well enough to move up.

Since all this I began to dread work days and have had lots of restless nights. I am haunted by the sound of my own surname as I hear voices calling it all the time, especially just before I fall asleep (I have a funny story about this to tell another time). After a majorly vivid work related nightmare which had me waking up struggling to breathe, I considered leaving and volunteering at a different school, where I could choose the year group I wanted to work with. But I only had a few weeks left and I did not want to leave a bad impression of myself with anyone. So I decided just bear it.

This is getting extremely long now so enough of the ranting and negativity. Although the struggles in my mind continue (due to general life rather than this job), I try to remember all the things I am lucky to have. A simple piece of advice I received recently was: “seeing the good in things can make you happier”. This has stuck with me as I have tried to follow it.

My time at the school has not been all bad, in fact the positives outweigh the negatives. A lot has changed since I started writing this over a month ago, things have improved as I have settled in and become more comfortable in my role.  So, I made a list of the good things:

  • I got a job in a school despite thinking I messed up the interview!
  • The other TA’s are super friendly and have helped to answer a lot of my questions.
  • The children! I miss them when I’m not in the same class for a while, they come up to me and tell me interesting things, show me things they have found, and just remind me why I want to work with children.
  • I’ve learnt hundreds of names in this short amount of time!
  • I’ve helped children to learn something new, which is always a great feeling!
  • I’ve been put on playground duty, which means I can have a break from reception and also get used to the older children (being out there for 1hr 30 mins straight is super tiring though, I need to work on my energy levels!).
  • I’m learning lots, and already have lots of great ideas for future Uni placements. 
  • My confidence is building again and I’m feeling more prepared for Uni every day.  
  • I have been on two trips with the Reception classes, both were super fun and gave me a chance to show off my leadership skills. 
  • I’m in a generally stress free role which doesn’t require much commitment or working from home, so I will make to most of it and enjoy the early finishes – it won’t last much longer, I’ve seen first-hand how stressed these teachers are, welcome to my future I guess!

I will continue on my path to teaching (mainly because all other options are very unappealing at the moment) and face whatever challenges this career throws at me! I cannot be put off by a few bad experiences. 

I realise I have shared far too much here, definitely way more than I had planned to! But I have recently found a new confidence in myself and am working on continuing to build on it. Writing is also a kind of therapy for me, and though I don’t do it very often, I will share what I am comfortable sharing – with time it may get deeper. Also something exciting is happening! I have been approached to write for a new project involving Muslim women! If all goes well it will be a new learning curve for me, a great chance to improve my writing and thinking skills – so watch this space (it may be a few months away).

Now onto the next challenge…getting back into study mode!

 

 

 

 

Note: This whole post took about 30 or so edits and I’m still not satisfied!! There are some things I wasn’t sure I should have included, and also a lot that I didn’t include. I constantly have things to write about which swim around my head at random times, but actually having the time and motivation to type them up is something else entirely. I want to emphasise that this is just a personal blog and therefore the content I put on here is entirely my choice. If the writing is bad, let it be! I am working on it! If the grammar or punctuation is bad please tell me so I can fix it and learn from it! Thank you!

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