“It takes a big heart to help shape little minds”, so a famous quote about teaching goes.
Sarah Thomas was told by her Head Teacher that she was employed as a Teaching Assistant (TA) because of her personality: “While volunteering he had seen me interact with the kids and decided I was the right person for the job. He told me that it was my heart that did it”, she said.
It’s a similar story for Joe Duffy, a Level 2 TA in a secondary school in which he himself studied. “I was on a school trip abroad and the teachers saw how I was looking out for a younger boy with Special Needs and anxiety. They told me that my big smile would be perfect for a classroom career.”
Personality is the ultimate cornerstone of education because teaching is a calling, a vocational profession. Every good educator is there because they want to be, because they care.
Education is in constant evolution and the role of a TA has grown in stature and importance in recent years. There was a time when a TA or Learning Support Assistant was merely a parent volunteering in their child’s class or helping with some extracurricular activity.
Now they are a vital cog in any school’s machinery,supporting pupils from a variety of backgrounds, who may have a range of learning and/or behavioural difficulties.
No specific qualification to be a TA is needed- just a big heart and a winning smile – but it is a very sought-after occupation and pursuing training will help. For entry-level positions, you need to have basic literacy and numeracy skills and although a degree is not necessary, having one could be an advantage in such a competitive field. Qualifications in related areas such as childcare, nursery, play or youth work can also be useful.
A TA salary will vary depending on the role, responsibilities and educational setting. Starting salaries for full-time, permanent TAs (level 1) are around £15,000 and with increased responsibility (levels 2 and 3), TAs can expect to earn between £15,000 and £21,000, rising to £25,000 for higher level TAs. Additional specialisms or SEN responsibilities can mean further increases.
The most important prerequisite is to like children, as obvious as that may seem, and having experience of working with them is essential. The journey to becoming a TA, therefore, starts with volunteering.
Sarah, 35, is a Level 3 TA working throughout a Wirral primary school and as a one-to-one with an autistic boy. After her university degree she volunteered at a school and signed up for a formal training course, which involved two days each week learning on the job in school and one day studying at college, plus lots of course work on topics such as the educational stages, the development of children and safeguarding.
She said: “I really wanted to work with children and have always been drawn to pastoral care and children’s mental well-being. I felt that a TA’s role fit more with this than a teacher’s, because it allows for close one-to-one work and getting to know kids on a deeper level.
“It’s so important to get some practical experience before you even apply for a course. A TA is more than teacher support, it’s a teaching job, we wear a lot of different hats and we are very busy.”
Sentiments echoed by Lauren Mertens, 52, who has been a TA in a Liverpool primary school for three years having gained a Level 3 Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools qualification. She previously worked for a national charity that promotes the enjoyment of reading, a role that saw her reading with children in the school in which she now works as a TA.
Lauren said: “I gained a qualification because I wanted the training. You need to know how to teach, you must be confident and be a quick learner and to be able to think on your feet. Some TAs work in the classroom, some do one-to-one work and may follow a child from year to year. I am attached to a class, as well as doing interventions in Maths and English across the school. There is no set pattern to my busy day which makes it even more interesting.”
Joe Duffy’s route was different, but still involved giving up his time. As he approached the end of his Upper Sixth year he was asked by his school if he would consider being a TA. As a pupil, Joe had Special Needs and with his lived experience shining through, coupled with his friendly face, he impressed his teachers so much that they wanted to make him one of them, offering him an apprenticeship delivered over 18 months by an external training provider.
Joe, who works with Special Needs pupils, said: “I spent my last three months at school shadowing different teachers, before returning in September to start my apprenticeship. Also, at the same, I had to do my Level 1 Functional Skills in Maths and English as well as an ICT qualification to progress to the full job.
“Even though I have my contract and I’m three years in the job, I am still learning all the time, because every day is different, and I am still adding to my qualifications.”
Three different people, but with two things in common – the ability to relate to children and the initial desire to volunteer their time – and one goal, to make a difference.
Sarah said: “You have to like children because this is an intense and demanding job with numerous challenges. You must be compassionate and really care. It’s not a job for the big money, but the rewards are great when you see children making progress, academically or socially and being happy.”
Lauren agreed: “The greatest reward of this job is the children themselves; they always make me smile. It’s true that to be effective it helps to have the right personality, to have some get up and go, to be flexible, adaptable and patient.This is the most fun I have ever had in a job. It’s wonderful to see children grow and achieve and feel pride at what they have accomplished.”
“This environment is quite challenging, and I was recently a pupil, so I know both sides very well”, Joe said. “I struggled a lot at school, I have dyslexia, so I know what it feels like and now I feel like I’m giving something back. It’s so fulfilling and rewarding and a great career to pursue. I get to see these kids’ ups and downs, to see them smile, to grow into young adults and begin to find their way.”