Is it time you paid attention to your teaching assistants?
Training of TAs in international schools is often overlooked, but institutions need to get over their 'inattentional blindness' writes Peter Hogan
There is a great psychological experiment where subjects watch a video of two basketball teams and have to count the number of times the ball is passed from one player to another. Like all such tests it is really about something else and during the interplay somebody in a gorilla suit walks among the players.
Time after time around half of the people counting the passes don’t see the gorilla and will go so far and denying it was ever there. Once the test was known about, thereby spoiling the trick, it was repeated with a similar video where, as well as a strolling gorilla, a curtain behind the players changes colour. This time half of the viewers were so busy waiting for the gorilla that they didn’t see the altered background.
This is called Inattentional Blindness and it goes some way to explain that, without proper attention, we lack conscious perception. We see something but if we don’t concentrate enough and make ourselves appreciate it, it becomes invisible.
Some years ago I had the opportunity to open a primary school in the UK and the new head was passionate about teaching assistants, recruiting them with as much care as she would the teaching staff and integrating them into all aspects of the professional life of the school.In a new school this made for superb team building and the TA staff became highly valued by teachers, children and their parents.
"We had so many teaching assistants, but while they were there, we didn’t seem to see them."
Years later when I became the principal of a school in Asia I was delighted and staggered by just how many TAs we hired. So many more than a British school. Every primary class had at least one, there were EAL TAs, TAs for music and sport and even more to cover lunch, break and bus duties. But while they were there, we didn’t seem to see them. Our TAs were vital in the lives of every child and highly prized by class teachers but in management terms I am sorry to say they were seen as interchangeable.
Our TAs didn’t feature in anything other than in-house training and I learned that this is normal in international schools. We would be dedicated and detailed in the matter of recruiting and training teaching staff, but the matters to do with teaching assistants seemed to fall to all sorts of different people at different times.
I would be encouraged to recruit native, local TAs or recruit international parents because they could speak a target language and help with translating. They were vetted and had an induction but then seemed to be absorbed into school.
Although TA pay was not high by UK standards it was better than many jobs in the city so we were not short of applicants. And then there were the “trailing spouses” (a term that still sits uncomfortably with me even after many years abroad). Who are they? They are the partners of employed expat who have travelled overseas without a job.
"There was no appetite to change and the labour supply was plentiful."
Our Asian managers would pounce on the trailing spouses-always hoping they would find willing expats with time to spare who could work as TAs. I would be told that it would look good, parents would like it and it would give the trailing spouse something to do. So alongside the well qualified and experienced British teaching staff we might have husbands, wives, local or international employees and even parents all learning on the job to be TAs.
This was in stark contrast to my UK experiences and never felt quite right. However, there was no appetite to change at board level and the labour supply was plentiful. Less attention was paid, training was not forthcoming and so our TAs became less visible. Our schools was not alone and I don’t think that schools should shoulder all the blame as tailor-made TA training has not been readily available overseas - until now.
"It is hard to predict how international schools will react but at least now they have a choice."
In January this year in a break from recruiting teachers in London I met up with an educational publisher I have known for many years. He told me that various authors had written training resources for TAs and the courses were accredited by the National Association of Professional Teaching Assistants (NAPTA).
The courses offer real and valuable professional development, are designed specifically for TAs, are written by experts and can be delivered online via phones, tablet or any others device. It sounded perfect.
Already over 150,000 TAs in Britain have taken the UK courses and now there is good news for TAs overseas. NAPTA have agreed to go international, launching the Association of International School Teaching Assistants (AISTA). AISTA will be accrediting a new international version of the TA training and this is now online and ready.
At last, international schools Teaching Assistants can get the recognition, accreditation, training and support they need and deserve. Will schools invest in this or will TAs stay unseen? It is hard to predict how they will react but at least now they have a choice.
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