2.2 Children’s and parents’ views
What do children and parents think of teaching assistants? Curiously, little has been written about their perspectives. A small-scale study involving 78 primary-aged children in England (Eyres et al., 2004) showed that children can, when asked, differentiate between their own class teacher and other adults who work with them. However, the children reported a substantial overlap between the activities of teachers and teaching assistants. For instance, eight-year-old Sarah said:
Well, the helpers seem to help out and do what the teacher does and the teacher seems to mostly teach children. But sometimes the helpers teach children.
Eleven-year-old Lissette speculated:
Well, Miss McAngel is the actual teacher, teacher, teacher. She actually teaches us everything because she’s just a teacher and she teaches us everything. But, if you like, you’ve got another teacher, they teach us – pretty much they’d teach us everything but Miss McAngel would do different things with us – d’you know what I mean? – sort of, I can’t put it into words really – but – can you help? (looking towards Tim, her friend).
To a large extent, teachers and teaching assistants were seen by the children in this study as working in ‘interdependent’ ways, with each making a significant contribution to children’s learning.
With regard to parents, given that many teaching assistants are parents from the local community, we can speculate that other parents are in touch with the ways in which teachers have increasingly delegated certain teaching-related responsibilities to assistants. But maybe this is not the case. Teaching assistants, after all, are a new workforce. When today’s parents were at primary school, they would not have had experience of assistants working alongside teachers in the way that children do now.
A questionnaire survey of parents’ perceptions of assistants by two specialist teacher assistants working at Roche CommunitySchool in Cornwall (Strongman and Mansfield, 2004) found that most of the parents placed great value on the contribution of teaching assistants. As one parent wrote, ‘They are of value as a backup for the teacher, as an extra pair of eyes in the classroom.’ Another parent noted, ‘A good assistant can be priceless in the classroom. With up to thirty-seven children in each class, how could a teacher do her job effectively without assistants?’
However, while these parents recognised the important role of assistants in their children’s primary school, many also felt that there should be a clear distinction between the roles of teachers and teaching assistants. As one parent said, ‘Teaching assistants should not “teach” the class, they should only assist the teacher.’ The extent to which this linguistic distinction – between ‘teaching’ and ‘assisting’ – can be maintained in classrooms when many teachers and teaching assistants are now working closely together in teams is open to question. When a teaching assistant ‘assists’ or ‘supports’ or ‘helps’ a child, there is always the possibility that the child will learn. Therefore, it could be said that the assistant has ‘taught’ that child, just as it could be said that parents teach their children many things and children often teach each other.
Perhaps a more appropriate way of thinking about this is to say that teachers, as qualified professionals, hold the overall responsibility for what goes on in a classroom in terms of learning and teaching. Children, it seems, understand this. In the study by Eyres et al. (2004) a number of children were clear that the teachers in their classrooms were ultimately in charge. As six-year-old Sam commented:
Well, Mrs Wilson and Mrs Georgio [both teaching assistants] don’t tell us what to do. Mrs Watts [the teacher] tells us what to do.