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Village People

October 31, 2013

Reprinted from my Herald Blog of two weeks ago in support of striking PSAs in Glasgow today.

I watched them discreetly from a distance: the distressed pupil and the Pupil Support Assistant.

He had a number of challenges, mental and physical, which made his place in mainstream education difficult to maintain but one of the few points of light in an otherwise uncertain future.

His behaviour could be totally unpredictable – from uncontrollable sobbing to jumping out of windows – yet the joy he evinced when school went well, and the hope it brought to his family, was invaluable. Many pupils provided support and acceptance for him; teachers taught him, understood him, and kept him as safe as possible.

However, when the rage and fear descended, we had to hope he would retain enough self-awareness to leave the class and be away from other pupils. In addition, he needed to know there was someone there for him – physically and supportively – at all times.

Through hard work and commitment, and a bit of luck, three of us had gained the knack of calming him, or at least helping him feel less threatened. However, two of us – a depute head and a guidance teacher – could not always be available when the message came that he had left the class and was upset. The third member of that supporting team – the pupil support assistant – could be more easily available to watch out for him.

It was a challenging and worrying task; emotionally it was difficult. When he was upset, walls might be punched, there could be tears, expletives, and unpredictable actions. Through her concern for him, his pupil support assistant learned how to support him at these times. In turn, either the guidance teacher or myself would follow at a distance, looking out for both of them.

She would follow him round the school – close enough so he knew she was there, but at a non-threatening distance. Eventually, he would find a spot where he felt safe and she would know she could approach him. One of the most heartening vignettes of school life would be the sight of the two of them sitting together, quietly talking, listening and nodding. Eventually – after as long as it took, she would return with him, with a nod to indicate things were better. Sometimes it was back to class, sometimes a call home was needed. Either way her work was impressive and moving. Her talent, her caring, and her skill changed the boy’s life.

There are teacher assistants like her in many schools, and many families have cause to be grateful for their abilities. Sometimes their contribution is startling, at other times it’s merely a quiet word to give confidence to a child struggling with literacy or numeracy. Very often they reach the pupils, parents, and families that others cannot – they have the advantages of concern without the obstacles of authority.

One of the greatest threats to teacher professionalism is the arrogance to believe we have all the answers or that others do not have a part to play. Never was it better demonstrated, as in the words of the old African proverb, that it takes a village to educate a child.

For all that pupil support assistants receive ridiculously low salaries, they are still often in the front line when it comes to cuts, and, currently south of the Border, there seems to be a move towards removing them altogether.

We need to remember that effective education profits from a group dynamic.

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