Schools as organised ‘communities’
Schools provide particular types of contexts for conducting engaged research and examining ideas about capacity building and resilience. Each school exists within a specific geographical location that defines it physically and socially. Collectively, schools also represent a particular type of social institution or organisational community where staff, students and families adopt roles that help schools go about their main business of teaching and learning. In addition, schools operate within a much wider system that is subject to a raft of policy initiatives, legislative requirements and regulatory procedures. Hence, internal and external factors shape the expectations and behaviours of the network of people working together in schools. It is in this context that juxtaposes inherent power differentials that TAs come to ‘know their place’ (Watson, Bayliss, & Pratchett, 2013, p. 105) in relation to others.
The place occupied by TAs within this structured form of community is not well defined in organisational policy. The official job description of their responsibilities in schools gives some insight into the way they are positioned within the organisational hierarchy:
Teacher aides support teaching and learning in Queensland state schools. They work closely with teachers, developing and obtaining resources, setting up and operating equipment, undertaking administrative duties, supervising students and participating in teaching activities under the direction of a teacher.
They provide a wide range of support for students who need assistance to participate in educational activities and achieve learning outcomes (Department of Education, Training and Employment [DETE], 2014, p. 1).
This description clearly places TAs within a discourse of support where they are expected to fill many different roles: supporting the organisation of the school; supporting the classroom teachers they work with; and supporting the students with their learning. These expectations were a reality for the TAs in this group. They discussed their work roles in response to an opening question that asked them to describe the tasks they performed in a typical working week:
I don’t know where to start. Um, I do a bit of admin... I do the front counter to greet parents and children, whatever they may need. Medication... Um, work in the classrooms, I mainly this year have done from 2-7... doing a lot of different things... resources for the teachers, maybe going to the library to find what they need... the photocopying... booklets and laminating, all that sort of stuff. Playground duty... time sheets... jack-of-all-trades really. (Denise)
This experience of being a jack-of-all-trades was viewed by most of the participants as part of the flexibility needed to be a ‘good’ TA with one participant confidently stating: ‘I think all teacher aides should be able to do anything’ (Lucy)
In reality, however, flexibility is more likely a consequence of the official policy discourses surrounding the conditions of TA employment in schools. Relatively few TAs are employed on a permanent basis (Butt, 2014). Some funding for TA hours is drawn from schools’ operational grants but additional hours are allocated on an annual basis depending on government priorities or the existence of students with specific needs in an individual school’s population (Howard & Ford, 2007). It would therefore seem to be in TAs’ best interests to position themselves as flexible support workers who are capable of performing any roles requested of them in school settings. The instability of their employment also clearly places TAs in positions within the school and system hierarchy where the tasks they perform are ‘contingent on the social cooperation and consent of others’ (Edwards, 2011, p. 103).
This positioning became readily apparent in the Reading SMART project when TAs tried to negotiate regular schedules for implementing the twice-weekly, half-hour lessons that were part of the intervention design. While a commitment to the project was made by school administrators, TAs had to rely on classroom teachers to timetable the sessions. The scheduling and regularity of intervention sessions therefore depended firstly on the teachers’ affirmation that the work TAs would be doing with students was valuable; and, secondly, on competing priorities for the types of TA support that might have been required by teachers at different times. In this way, organisational discourses shaped the possibilities for full participation in the project available to individual TAs as well as the conditions attached to their implementation of the intervention. These conditions served to confirm the ‘place’ of TAs in schools within a discourse of support.
A second feature of the organisational context that affects TAs’ perceptions of themselves as support workers relates to the nature of their training and preparedness for their work. In Australia, TAs are not required to hold any formal qualification as a condition of their employment (Butt, 2014). Twelve of the participants in the Reading SMART project held a vocational certificate (Certificate lll in Education Support), obtained by completing a course offered in the Vocational Education and Training sector. For the majority of these participants, completion of this certificate course was a choice made after they had gained employment to help them to move up the TA pay scale. Other participants either held qualifications that were unrelated to their work or no qualifications at all. One TA was an exception to this pattern having previously held a position as a registered teacher. The majority of TAs described the way they came to be employed at the school as a result of various voluntary work they performed in their own children’s classrooms:
. .. When my oldest daughter started preschool, I was coming up every day... and then it progressed to “um, would you like to come help with home reading of a morning?” So I started that... the Year 2 “Net” came up... the funding for that, and I was asked because I was up most days reading, so it progressed from there ... (Karissa)
This natural progression from friendly parent helper to paid employment as a TA is common organisational practice in school contexts (Howard & Ford, 2007). These practices influence the expectations that TAs bring to their work by socialising them in to relationships with teaching staff where they effectively become the ‘less competent’ adult working under the direction of a ‘competent other’ (Watson et al., 2013, p. 102). These types of relationships were evident in the way participants in the program talked about their work:
... My main role is to support the teacher. Whatever the teacher needs me to do, that is what I basically do. (Terry)
. .. if I’m in class and I can see they need help, I will, if the teacher wants me to. (Bethany)
The extent to which organisational discourses mould perceptions of TAs’ efficacy in working with students is clearly illustrated through the unique example of one participant named Penny. Penny was a qualified teacher who explained that she left teaching to work as a TA to escape the responsibilities she felt were attached to her work in her previous career. When asked to describe the way she worked to support student learning in the classroom, Penny explained:
If I’m roaming around the classroom, they might say to me “oh Penny, could you work with him”... I’m actually told just as I walk in what I’m going to be doing and then if there’s any time, a teacher might come up to me and say “this is what I really want you to be concentrating on”... if the teacher’s at the front of the room... then um, she might say “oh just keep an eye out on her... or just go around and help.” So that’s usually what I do... knowing students that might have an extra bit of trouble, I might go around and just sit with them for a little while, till they don’t want me to sit or if there’s a hand going up, I’ll go over to them ...
These examples illustrate the powerful discourses operating in school contexts with respect to the teaching and learning relationships between teachers and TAs and between TAs and students. Research studies in TA responses to these work conditions vary in their findings. In some instances, TAs describe feeling like ‘spare parts’ (Collins & Simco, 2006, p. 204) whose skills are not recognised or used to best advantage by teachers. Other studies have found that these types of relationships provide security for TAs who enjoy being placed in a comfort zone (Blatchford, Webster, & Russell, 2012). This comfort zone is created through the daily replication of predictable duties that involve little more than monitoring students’ on-task behaviours and repeating the teacher’s instructions for completing classroom tasks. Enactment of these passive roles and the acquired tolerance of ‘knowing their place’ within this particular construct of community places very real constraints on TAs’ abilities for demonstrating resilience, autonomy or an adaptive capacity for responding to change.