Teacher aide system needs change

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By Peter Garelja

With regard to "Value role of teacher aides", March 15, your editorial begins with some supportive statements about the role that teacher aides perform.

However, drawing on your own experience you conclude "the current system doesn't fail for want of great people - it fails because it is a flawed system".

I could not agree more and what's more, the educational research literature backs up what you are saying.

Throwing teacher aide hours at special needs students is just a sop by the system to parents and to mainstream teachers.

Why is it that the students with the greatest learning needs are allocated the people with the least qualifications?

It just doesn't make sense. While, over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with some great teacher aides, educational research indicates that overall, the effect size of teacher aides on student learning is negligible, and in some cases detrimental.

It's not the people, it's the system.

Labelling is very much at the heart of the problem, where "ableism" (a prejudicial attitude towards disability, where teachers and teacher aides focus all of their efforts on the symptoms of disability, rather than on believing and acting on the assumptions of capability) prevails.

One that, at its worst, is a patronising set-up with high levels of dependency built in and separation from mainstream students. So, what works?

Inclusion with highly skilled and qualified teachers and para-professionals (teacher aides) working together with students in the class.

Continued below.

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A range of strategies can be used, including the teacher working alongside any students needing further explanation and support, while the teacher aide looks after those students who are able to proceed without any undue difficultly?

You are right to argue "that a child who struggles to learn needs specialist teaching to reach their potential. In a Utopian world, teacher aides would be better qualified than teachers".

Therefore, ongoing professional development needs to be provided, so that all teachers have the skills to differentiate instruction, including knowledge of strategies to apply for those labelled special needs students.

The notion of a teacher aide needs to be replaced with one of implied proactive partnership with the teacher - a role with professional pathways, with associated training and a salary scale to match.

The provision of learning support for students should not, as is largely the case at present, be down to the small number of students who attract ORRS (Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Streams) funding or to the whim of individual Boards of Trustees or Principals.

Learning support is a right, not an optional extra.

Funding for staffing in learning support should therefore be centralised, as is the case with teachers' salaries, and not come out of the school's operational budget.

Perhaps in our quest to address growing inequity in New Zealand we should ask the Education Review Office to judge schools primarily on the basis of the quality of support the school provides to those requiring special assistance in order to become effective learners (and use this as a basis to determine a principal's salary and the size of a school's operations grant?).

I suspect we may be surprised at just how welcome special needs students would be in schools, and how improved the levels of support learners would receive - just saying!

- Peter Garelja is a recently retired secondary school principal.

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