Teacher Aids, Underpaid and Undervalued

Finland is generally assessed as the highest performing country in the world for educational achievement. It has done this without resorting to national testing or using Charter Schools, but by valuing teaching as a career and giving it a status similar or above that of a doctor. They have around 6,000 applicants a year for teacher training when there are only 600 positions. Their teachers are highly trained professionals who are largely trusted to get on with the job of teaching without political interference. The Finish Government also works collaboratively with teacher unions to advance educational outcomes.

If teachers and doctors can be regarded as similar professions in status, knowledge and training (all Finnish teachers require a masters degree) then perhaps we should also regard the paraprofessionals that support them in a similar way. Nurses are a vital part of any health system, they are well qualified, well paid and have career pathways that support ongoing learning. The equivalent position in education are school support staff.

Support Staff in schools, like nursing, have wide ranging roles. They make up around 30% of all school staff and are involved in clerical and administrative roles or more commonly as Teacher Aids who work with children in classrooms or on an individual basis. They are often employed to work with children with the highest needs and many who have major disabilities or behaviour problems. Now that most children, despite their needs, are expected to be in mainstream schools, teacher aids have become a vital element of most classrooms. Despite the obvious comparison between school support staff and nursing, the two jobs could not be more different in status, remuneration or job security.

After five years a registered nurse with no leadership responsibilities can earn over $30 an hour. Nurses generally have good job security and most jobs are advertised as permanent positions.

Teacher Aids are included in Grades A and B of the support staff agreement and most would be paid within Grade A (according to Careersnz there were over 14,000 teacher aids employed in 2012). Few teacher aids have any specialised training, but many are mature, capable women (few men) who were employed because of personal attributes that make them suitable for working with high needs children. They reach the top step after four years and the highest hourly rate is $16.36 an hour. If a Teacher Aid has to work independently and has some responsibility to plan and manage children's learning (Grade B) then after five years they can earn $17.20 an hour. Both rates are well beneath the living wage of $18.40 and well below the average wage of $27.48. It is one of many jobs that have experienced gender based pay discrimination because most teacher aids are female.

Added to the appalling rates of pay is the lack of job security and limited hours. Teacher Aids are only paid during the times that schools are open and there is a long break in income over the Summer school holidays. Most Teacher Aids are paid out of the school operations grant which is determined by school roll and decile. School principals are not able to guarantee ongoing employment for teacher aids when numbers of high needs children can vary and roll numbers and funding can fluctuate. Teacher Aid pay also has to compete with other funding demands within the school that the operations grant must cover. Even if a teacher aid has worked in a school for over ten years they have no certainty of hours, are generally employed on a year to year basis and generally can earn no more than $16.36 an hour.

I have known many Teacher Aids who make teaching resources for children in their own time and often work beyond the limited hours that they are paid for. Some teacher aids have found their hours cut and resort to $14.84 per hour school cleaning jobs to make up the difference. Given the hours available there would be few teacher aids who would earn more than $14,000 a year and most would earn much less.

I have worked with some amazing teacher aids who are highly knowledgeable about autism or severe disabilities through their own research and passion for their job. The learning of many disabled children is often due to the competence of the teacher aid rather than the classroom teacher, because it is the teacher aid who spends most time with the child and who generally has to adapt learning activities in mainstream classes to suit a high needs child because the teacher does not always have the time. With many high needs children, physical violence is a daily reality and Teachers Aids often accept injuries inflicted by students (biting, hitting and kicking) as part of the job.

If we value education and the support needed to lift the achievement of our high needs children then the role of the Teacher Aid must also be valued. The job needs to be centrally funded and have a permanent staffing component for all schools (based on roll and decile). As with nursing, qualifications and a career structure should be considered and perhaps it may even attract more men to the job.


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