"We’re seen as the ‘mother helper’, but we’re not just cleaning up paint." (Photo: Getty)

In their own words: what it means to be a teacher aide

New Zealand teacher aides say their pay reflects an outdated idea of what they do. Elizabeth McLeod hears from four TAs, and one parent, about the classroom realities they face every day

Cleaning up poo, defusing violent situations, copping physical and verbal abuse: these are the realities of a teacher aide’s typical day. There are around 20,000 TAs in Aotearoa, working to support children who need the most help with their learning, breaking down schoolwork into steps that suit the needs of the individual child.

It’s highly skilled work, but it’s work that has historically been done by women, so notoriously underpaid and insecure. New teacher aides get paid minimum wage; the average annual income is $20,000. Unlike their teacher colleagues, teacher aides don’t get paid during term break and their hours often aren’t guaranteed from one term to the next. There’s no career pathway and often little professional development.

Support staff (including teacher aides) have just embarked on collective agreement negotiations with the Ministry of Education, but many believe a pay equity settlement is what’s needed to really provide the necessary step change to properly value them.

I spoke to teacher aides from around New Zealand about their work, and why they’re asking for equity.

Kate*, teacher aide at a decile 10 primary school

I’ve been a teacher aide for 11 years and the job has definitely changed. Before I was working one-on-one, whereas now, there are lots of kids with additional needs. I’m still allocated one child, but I also work with groups of kids who are struggling, and I’m doing more of the teaching side of things. I run literacy and maths programmes. But I’m also kind of like an extra teacher any of the kids can come to if they need help. And I’m managing behaviour because often the kids with academic needs have behavioural issues.

I’m pretty calm, but it’s stressful. Working on different programmes back-to-back, always against the clock. When I’m given new programmes, it takes a few sessions to get going and I stress sometimes that I’m not running them correctly. I give 100% and I’m quite tough on myself if a workshop hasn’t gone well. I’m always having to come up with better strategies to help particular kids without appearing to single them out.

I guess I take home with me the emotions of the day, like if I’ve been involved in a situation where a child has been abusive – verbally or physically – to me or a teacher. I’ve had a few situations recently where a child has hurt the teacher and I’ve had to get all the kids into a safe place so they didn’t witness it or get hurt. It’s hard to shake that off when you get home. It’s very distressing to witness it.

Over the years I’ve formed strong bonds with some students from challenging backgrounds. I take all that home with me and worry about these kids and how their evenings are.

Some kids I’ve worked with since they started school. Many are in year six now so I have a really good understanding of them. When they need someone, it’s me they’ll ask to see, even if I haven’t worked with them for a couple of years. If a teacher can’t get through to this particular child they’ll come and find me. There are certain kids who really need that person they’ve formed a strong attachment to. You just think if people like me weren’t there, what would happen to these kids?

I work one-on-one with a child that has autism spectrum disorder, ADHD and mild Tourette’s. His mum’s very insightful and helps me understand him, but I haven’t had any training in working with children with these conditions. I’ve been in quite a few scary, volatile situations with him. He’s lashed out before and you’re not allowed to restrain these days. We’ve had professional development on alternatives to restraining, but it’s still scary.

I’m a single mum with three kids, so I make ends meet by babysitting after school and taking in international students to help with the rent. It’s when you’ve got the unexpected expenses though: the car breaks down, or I need to pay for camp.

“If people like me weren’t there, what would happen to these kids?” (Photo: Getty)

I’d love to have the job acknowledged more. I’m embarrassed to tell people what I do. It was OK at first because I’d just gotten back into work after five years at home with kids and I was only going to do it for six months or so. Now, I don’t want to give it up: I love it, it’s what I do, and  I’m good at it. But when I think about it – and I do think about it a lot – the pay is degrading and people don’t understand what the role entails.

Having said that, I absolutely love my job and I know I make a difference. It would just be amazing if I could get paid what I’m worth.

Caroline*, teacher aide at a decile two primary school

I work with a 10-year-old girl who’s deaf, so I’m both her TA and her sign language communicator. She didn’t know any sign language at first so I’ve had to teach her while learning it myself in my own time. School has paid for some courses while I’ve paid for others. They’re always outside of work hours and I’m not given leave to attend them. I’m also not paid any extra for having that skill.

In class I’m scaffolding her learning: I break down what the class is doing to make it accessible for her. Her language and experience of the world are quite limited so I’ll use whatever ways I can think of and any resources I can find to help her understand.

She’s got quite a difficult home life, so she can be quite emotionally up and down. Part of being her teacher aide is keeping on top of what’s going on at home. Has she eaten that day? Did she sleep at home? If I know what’s going on at home it makes it easier to help her at school.

She has cochlear implants and sometimes things get broken or lost, so I’ll send equipment away for repair. I also take her to her cochlear implant appointments. We’ll spend a few hours there and during the break, I’ll take her off to Deaf Aotearoa so she can pick up some resources and talk to them. Then I’ll buy her lunch at a café where they do signing. So it’s kind of beyond the job description because she doesn’t get to do that otherwise. It’s a special treat, and it’s her community.

I’ll pay for that, and I’ve seen other TAs pay for things themselves. The TAs do a lot of the fundraising too. They’ll give up their time and put money in for raffle prizes. That all adds up because we’re not on a great income.

It’s been quite a journey really. I’ve been lucky in that she’s clever and despite everything, she’s a lovely kid. When I first started working with her, she pretty much had no spoken language and just a tiny bit of sign, and she had behavioural issues from the frustration of not being able to communicate. Since then her communication has improved and now she loves school. School’s really her happy place.

Teacher aides are seen as “mother helpers”, but we’re not just cleaning up paint. I feel like we’re paid for the idea of what we used to be and not for the job that we do now. The TA’s role is a lot more complex. It involves physical work (changing nappies for older kids, changing catheters) but it also involves you having to think on your feet. You’re constantly having to figure out “what do I do now?” or “how do I implement what the teacher wants to do?”

I’ve never earned a lot of money so I think I just always assumed what I was earning was what I was worth. Then my son got a job straight out of school at an engineering firm and he was getting paid the same as me. I was pleased for him but it was quite confronting. I thought, “not only have I got years of experience and I’m good at what I do, but I’ve also learned another language to do my job.” I feel like that’s not acknowledged.

Bridget*, teacher aide at a high-decile full primary in Auckland

I work with groups rather than individuals. There are students who get ORS (Ongoing Resourcing Scheme) funding but there are a whole lot of other kids with undiagnosed issues, or kids that are still going through the system, so the funding tends to get spread across multiple students.

For a lot of kids at our school, English isn’t their first language and probably a third of students struggle with English. I’m not a trained English as a Second Language teacher but I was made the ESOL teacher for a term when the regular teacher went on leave. I wasn’t given any training for it.

The funny thing is that even though there was another TA, they’d come and get me if there were any accidents across the school (we had one guy who was a chronic poo-er). I think it’s because I was a mum and the other TA wasn’t. I was doing the ESOL teaching work but I was still on call for accidents: I was the poo person. I remember finding out about the pay for that. I think it was only about $3 and you only get paid for one. And there were a couple of kids, so sometimes I was cleaning up five times a day.

I have two children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and I think it’s definitely informed how I do my job. I definitely have empathy for the parents. There was one mum whose daughter was very similar to my own and she always had a really difficult time with her when it was time to start school. I’d see the mum leaving with her eyes full of tears and I’d hug her and say, “it’s going to get better, go and have a coffee now. Don’t spend your whole day thinking about this, she’s going to be fine, we’re looking after her.”

I’ve worked as a TA for three years fulltime and never received professional development on working with kids with autism or other conditions, even though you’re specifically there to work with special needs kids. I’m training to be a teacher and I was shocked to discover there’s no compulsory paper on special needs in our training.

Now after three years, I’m on $20.83/hour, but I get just $13 after PAYE and Kiwisaver deductions. If I stopped working and studied fulltime, I’d get more on the student allowance. But I want to keep it up because I’d like to work at the same school when I’m qualified [for teaching].

What would pay equity mean for me? I’d like to be able to afford to send my kids to extra stuff they want to do. My six-year-old would love to do gymnastics and she’s pretty good at a forward tumble, but that’s just not within my means.

Relievers come into school all fresh-faced and joyful because they’re earning $200 a day.  TAs are supposed to be these amazing open-hearted people who will do everything – I never say no, it doesn’t matter what job they ask me to do. I know it’s not the school’s intention and a lot of schools really value their TAs and look after them, but it doesn’t matter how nice people are to you at work. When you get paid, the amount on that pay cheque says something to you about your worth in society. It says something to you about your place and your value.

We were talking to NZEI and they said one of the comparators they’d come up with were prison guards who get paid heaps more. My friend and I looked at each other and said: “We would make great prison guards!” And the thing is if someone says they’re a prison guard, you’d be like, “oh, they’ve got authority, they’ve got respect.” But if someone says they’re a TA, you’d be like, “oh, bless. Good for you,” you know?

Gina*, teacher aide at a low-decile primary

I work across a class of five- and six-year-olds but I also have a group of five children I focus on who are struggling and are below the level they should be.

We do play-based learning. At the moment I’m focusing with my group on spelling their names: that’s taken us quite a few terms. Some of them can spell their first names now, so we’re working on last names. I do a lot of just teaching them things like how to hold their pencil properly and how to tie their shoelaces.

With 20 in the class the teacher doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with the ones who are struggling. We do individual reading with them twice a day because a lot of them don’t read at home.

I make a lot of resources at home. I’ll google materials, print them out, and stick them in the kids’ books. One time I printed out shoe shapes and the kids coloured them in. Then I laminated them and took them home, cut them all out, hole-punched them, and threaded through wool so they could practise tying laces. That took me all weekend! Just to help the teacher, because she doesn’t have time.

I started teacher aiding last year. Before that, I was at home with my own special needs child. My son was born with a chronic medical condition that resulted in him developing a lot of impairments, including Tourette’s. It’s not too bad, you know. There are worse families out there. I’ve only got one, I’ve seen families with two.

One of the biggest challenges of being a TA has to do with “behaviour children”. We had one little fella at our school who would just pick up a table, throw it, and call the teacher every name he could think of if he didn’t get his way.

I’ve been punched, I’ve been called every name under the sun, I’ve been spat on … and these aren’t kids with special needs, so they don’t have teacher aides working individually with them because there’s not enough of us. When a child’s having a meltdown like that, usually I’ll get them out of the class and just sit with them, or I’ll grab a ball. A lot of the time if they’ve had a fight with the teacher, that’s where a teacher aide can have more luck.

I’m paid $18 an hour but it’s annualised so it works out to $15.85 an hour, and that’s with an NZQA level 4 certificate. I work five days a week, four hours a day. We’re a household of four – two adults and two children – living on a part-time wage at the moment. We get by, but it’s a struggle to make ends meet. My daughter’s looking at attending university because next year’s her last year at high school. But I’ve had to tell her we can’t save up for that at the moment because she’s wanting to go to Victoria University in Wellington. Yes, it’s free fees, but then there’s the accommodation!

I was really lucky that my son had a brilliant teacher aide. She was with him from the time he started primary school to when he left last year. She worked with him and she advocated for him. She pushed for him to do kapa haka because he seemed to really like it and she was very supportive towards me. I don’t think I would’ve handled the school as well as I did if I didn’t have her there. She even came to our doctor’s meetings at the hospital. Last year for the first time my son went away on a big school trip. His father went too but without his teacher aide, he wouldn’t have been able to go.

“When you get paid, the amount on that pay cheque says something to you about your worth in society. It says something to you about your place and your value.” (Photo: Getty)

We need teacher aides. There are a lot of kids who wouldn’t get help if we weren’t around, and we also do a lot of stuff behind the scenes (we have three TAs who are netball coaches). They do this stuff outside of school, it’s all voluntary. One of our TAs takes the boys out to play sport at lunchtime. I don’t know if he’s paid for that time.

Pay equity would make us feel like we’re a lot more appreciated. That’s just as important as the money: feeling appreciated and acknowledged.

Susan, parent of two children with additional needs

Our son Logan has a chromosomal abnormality so he’s developmentally delayed. He’s low-verbal and he can walk and run but not at the stage you’d expect of a seven-year-old. All three of our children are adopted: two were uplifted so they have ongoing attachment problems, which manifests in their behaviour.

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For Logan, who was uplifted at nine months, that means he can be quite aggressive and oppositional, but also incredibly clingy to me. Leaving him has always been a real issue, and it’s only because of the work of a family therapist, TAs and our Senco [special needs coordinator] that we’ve managed to leave him at school fairly confidently.

With his TA’s help Logan can communicate through a computer app, and he makes stories to share with his classmates. All that has been just such an amazing thing: for him to be able to participate in a normal class environment, and for people to get to know him, and to know that he’s not that weird kid, you know? He’s a person too and he has things he wants to share. He can write his name now, and he can recognise maybe 10 words. And that for him is a huge achievement because I didn’t know if he would ever be able to do that. That’s a gift.

And it’s not easy. I love my boy completely, but he’s hard work. He’s big, he’s strong and he can be very aggressive. He’s hurt me – really hurt me – and I’m sure he’s hurt the TA too. He spits at people. How many jobs do you get spat at and you just have to say “that’s ok, I know you’re upset”? Keeping your temper under these circumstances: it’s a really special person who can do that, and not many people could.

* Names have been changed to protect the identities of the teacher aides and the children they work with. Accounts are abridged and edited for clarity. The author worked with NZEI Te Riu Roa in researching this article.


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