Prevent Teacher Burnout and Improve Student Outcomes Through TA Training
As we mentioned in an earlier blog post, schools everywhere are confronting the impossible dilemma of being understaffed and over budget in the learning support department, leaving them unequipped to meet their students’ needs. A common quick fix to this problem is using untrained, inexperienced teaching assistants to fill in the gaps. As you can imagine, this causes more problems than it fixes and leads to teacher burnout, and puts students at a disadvantage.
The Untrained Teaching Assistant: Good Intentions Meet a Harsh Reality
After years of staying home with her children, my good friend Crystal was looking to get back into the workforce with a job that lined up with her kids’ school schedule. A teaching assistant job seemed like the perfect solution; she would have the same days off as her kids, a shorter day, and no background in education was required. Crystal’s personality fit perfectly for this position. She is patient, understanding, energetic, and great with kids. She was hired as a 4K assistant teacher and couldn’t wait to get started.
Very quickly, Crystal was shocked by the stark reality of this job. Even though she had no experience or training in either general or special education, her primary responsibility was to supervise several students exhibiting disruptive behavior issues. At one point, she even found herself physically restraining students who were at risk of violent outbursts. To say her experience wasn’t what she was expecting is a great understatement. She was anticipating a job filled with tasks like making copies, tying shoes, and prepping art projects; she got a special education position without the degree. Crystal stayed on through two school years before deciding she just couldn’t do it anymore and resigned.
Unfortunately, stories like Crystal’s are all too common. According to a 2018 Zippia survey of almost 11,000 education paraprofessionals, the average time spent in their position was only 1-2 years (Zippia, 2021). This statistic leads us to ask an important question: why are we using the least trained adult in the room to work with individuals with the highest needs? Expecting untrained TAs to support students with high needs is setting them up for failure and a disservice to both students and the TAs themselves.
So, where do we go from here? The answer is better training. Effective TA training not only improves student outcomes but also helps TAs by improving job satisfaction, the perceived value of a school, teacher-student relationships, delivery of instruction, and home-school collaboration.
The Dangers of Ineffective TA Training
Schools often balk at investing in their TAs, and it’s easy to see why. After all, TAs are among the lowest-paid educational staff members, with a high rate of turnover. Why invest in their success?
Unfortunately, the substandard practices of low hiring qualifications and limited training are not the answer — and actually cost schools more in every way. Here are just a few reasons why:
- Gen Ed Teacher Neglect. When teachers can’t trust TAs to provide the right support, they have two options: maroon the student and TA on their own island or spend inordinately large amounts of time working with both. One study found that over 80% of schools surveyed reported concerns that gen ed teachers were only superficially involved with students with high needs (Giangreco et al., 2010). Without a developed system connecting their work with that of TAs, gen ed teachers often neglect the high needs students and focus on the rest of the class. We need to expect our classroom and subject level teachers to work with students that have been assigned a TA in the classroom rather than absolving themselves because they are now “someone else’s student.”
- Gen Ed Teacher Burnout. While some teachers leave the TA and student alone, others feel constantly pulled to assist the assistant. This was certainly my experience, and almost led to me leaving education forever. It’s impossible to expect a gen ed teacher to train a TA, attend to students with special needs, and teach an entire class of students with varying abilities of their own. It’s not sustainable and often leads to the most compassionate and capable teachers — the very educators all schools want to attract and retain — to leave the profession.
- Student Stigmatization. In a perfectly trained world, TAs are nearly invisible to the rest of the class. They go about the business of aiding the student with minimal class disruption and allow their charge to be a kid — with peer support from classmates, involvement in activities, friends, and fun. When TAs are poorly trained, however, students feel incredibly ostracized. Giangreco et al. (2010) reported students felt their TA supports were stigmatizing or unwanted, and they were often physically separated from the rest of the class to do the same work everyone else was doing. This is clearly not the high-quality, inclusive schooling that we know we can provide our students.
- TA Turnover. Advertising for teacher assistants, interviewing, hiring, and onboarding can be extensive processes, even without thorough training programs. TAs often have high turnover, but that’s frequently because they’re sent into the field without confidence and competence in the challenging work they do. Confusion, frustration, and disillusionment — not to mention low pay — all lead to a short career. Schools would do better to find those genuinely compassionate and hardworking TAs, train them well, and treat them well for the long term.
The Problems with Remove & Remediate or Pull-Out & Fix
When TAs are used as special ed support teachers, they’re often asked to pull certain students out of the regular classroom to work with them individually. There is no blanket approach to supporting students needing extra help. While there are times when pull-out or remove & remediate programs are appropriate, schools generally should focus instead on supporting students within the classroom whenever possible. When students get pulled out of the classroom, they struggle with:
- Negative attention. As mentioned above, students getting pulled out of class regularly are labeled and stigmatized by their peers and even by themselves. This can be detrimental to the student’s self-esteem, cause low morale, and cause acquiring new skills to be much more difficult. We teach the benefits of positive self-talk at school, read students The Little Engine That Could, yet the structure set up for our struggling students leads them into an “I think I can’t” attitude.
- Missed instruction. Since there is usually very little time during the day for collaboration between TAs and classroom teachers, it is inevitable that students pulled out of the classroom will miss some instruction or valuable learning experiences. Students may be getting the assignment done but missing that great question someone had that led to a stimulating conversation or an unplanned teachable moment.
- Scheduling difficulties. Arranging pull-out programs to line up with the classes students need help in is difficult and can sometimes result in students missing out on other parts of their day. My niece, for example, used to get pulled out of science class for extra math practice. In her teachers’ minds, they prioritized and did what they could to focus where she was struggling. From my niece’s point of view, she was missing her favorite subject of the day where she had a chance to shine and gain confidence.
- Lack of community within the classroom. Students need to be in their classroom to form friendships, take part in experiences, and join in on the lunchroom conversations about the funny thing that happened during reading class. Forming these bonds with peers and feeling like a part of the classroom community is a crucial part of the student learning experience. When students are pulled out regularly, it forms a disconnect between that student and the rest of the class and can lead to feelings of isolation.
Instead of the remove & remediate approach, imagine a classroom equipped with highly trained TAs who can take over the more straightforward tasks such as supervising reading groups or going over example math problems. This would enable the classroom teacher to be the one meeting individual students’ needs — something they’ve prepared for and are expecting to do. Students would remain in the classroom together, a vibrant collection of different learning styles and levels of comprehension, an opportunity to learn from each other, teach acceptance, and celebrate uniqueness.
In our schools, we can only work with what we are given, and in some cases it’s simply not enough. But instead of resigning ourselves to stressed-out teachers and a subpar educational experience for our students, let’s try a new approach. Are you ready to invest in your TAs so they can provide support in a way that makes more sense for everyone? I can help. To get started, click here to view a list of educational services I offer and to join my mailing list. Then, visit eduspark.world.com, where you can sign up for my Inclusive Teaching Assistant Training course. Together we can take steps toward happier teachers, on-track students, and a more positive classroom environment overall.
Wondering what should be included in a TA training program? In my next blog post, I’ll go over eight key elements every teaching assistant should be trained in for a successful classroom.
Zippia. (2021, August). Education paraprofessional demographics and statistics. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.zippia.com/education-paraprofessional-jobs/demographics/.
Giangreco, M. F., Suter, J. C., & Doyle, M. B. (2010). Paraprofessionals in Inclusive Schools: A Review of Recent Research. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 20(1), 41–57.
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