Schools as communal spaces in disadvantaged communities
The classification of students from the participating schools as ‘educationally disadvantaged’ created another powerful discourse operating in these contexts. The use of a scale relegating schools and their students to ‘statistically similar’ data sets effectively attributes a particular meaning to the term ‘community’ in these settings. The concept of disadvantage potentially overshadows other ways of describing, understanding and responding to students in these schools and represents another discourse affecting TAs’ perceptions of their roles in supporting student learning. Many of the TAs reported that they lived within the community boundaries that their schools served and 17 participants still had children who were attending the schools where they worked. These close relationships with the larger school community differed from those established by other members of the school staff as the TAs often had personal knowledge of the students and their family situations. Similar patterns in TA employment are reported throughout the literature with some studies acknowledging that TAs can act as ‘intermediaries’ (Alborz, Pearson, Farrell, & Howes, 2009, p. 2) between home and school contexts by virtue of these local connections. This understanding and empathy for the home situations of students was evident in the way TAs talked about their relationships with the children at their schools:
Some of the children around here have come in from big families and maybe they’re not noticed very much at home so at school... I will give them that attention. I will notice them. I will say if they’re doing something good. I will you know, say “you did really well”... there’s a lot of areas where some of the children, I don’t think home lives are very happy and so when they’re at school I want to try to be one of those people ...just make that day really a happy one. (Bethany)
While these social and emotional connections to community may help TAs offer social reassurance to students and potentially bridge sociocultural differences between home and school environments, TAs have been accused of creating a type of ‘cocoon’ (Tucker, 2009, p. 293) around students to protect them from challenging tasks and the emotional consequences of failure. One participant explained that she had disliked school herself and so when students were struggling with their work, she helped them by using ‘simple strategies that are going to be like nice and easy ... and to be able to go, “okay, let’s breeze through this” and making it so that they can.’ (Selena)
This theme of protecting struggling students from learning challenges was common throughout the interview data with TAs equating these types of strategies with ‘helping’ students:
... when it’s not one-on-one and it’s in group work, you’ve got to try and help them and not make them feel embarrassed. (Bethany)
... if they have trouble, I find answers for the questions on the comprehension sheet, you know, just help them ... (Terry)
Thus, the self-concept of being the ever-ready ‘helper’ which emerged from TAs’ perspectives on their work in supporting teachers transferred to the way they responded to the disadvantages, real or perceived, that their students faced. These perspectives ostensibly worked to reduce the adaptive capacity TAs were able to demonstrate when students showed little progress in their learning.