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NC wrestles with the value of teacher assistants

In a kindergarten classroom at Pearsontown Magnet Elementary School in Durham, Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham) sat down last week with a group of students and showed them that he knows his ABCs.

Sen. Woodard Sings

He was visiting the school to “shadow” a teacher assistant, Ron Smith, and better understand the role of TAs in the classroom experience. 

His visit mirrors similar visits by other Democratic senators, including Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg), that are part of an effort to showcase the importance of teacher assistants. The Senate had proposed cutting funding for more than 8,500 over the next two years and using the savings to help reduce class sizes, which they contend would result in better student outcomes.

The proposal in the Senate version of the budget has been a point of contention for many educators and Democratic legislators, and it’s at odds with the House plan for TA funding. 

Smith walked Woodard through a typical school day and explained the necessity of the job. Smith is a veteran of the Durham Police Department, who eventually became a TA after leaving the force and becoming an entrepreneur. 

“I don’t believe that some of the people in the General Assembly really understand the necessity and the needs for having the instructional assistant in the classroom,” Smith said.

Woodard, right, talks with some Pearsontown students (Photo Credit/Alex Granados)
Woodard, right, talks with some Pearsontown students (Photo Credit/Alex Granados)

 For instance, a smaller class size — as proposed by the Senate budget — doesn’t relieve the need for two people in a classroom. Something as simple as accompanying a child to the bathroom can be problematic with only one adult overseeing a class, he said. 

“That’s one child, but there are 20 others that have to be taken care of,” Smith said. 

And that’s just the most simple scenario he could come up with. Smith pointed to a student in a wheelchair and explained that just taking the kids outside to play can yield logistical difficulties that one person alone might not be able to handle. 

“I really couldn’t imagine them trying to do this without some of us,” he said. 

This is the first year that Pearsontown has no teacher assistants in second grade. Last year, they had three, divided between six classes. They could only spend about 15 to 20 minutes in each class, Smith said. 

Woodard explained that in the last biennium budget, the General Assembly shrank funding for TAs, and the one-adult, second grade classrooms at Pearsontown are one consequence. 

“That wasn’t the district’s decision. that was the General Assembly’s decision,” Woodard said.

Durham Schools Superintendent Bert L’Homme said that TAs often take on multiple roles at a school, including running after-school programs or serving as bus drivers. He said they’re essential for student success. 

“We can’t do this unless we have more training bodies,” he said. “Volunteers are wonderful, but they don’t replace this.” 

DSC_0007And Smith added that TAs are well educated at his school. All of them have higher education degrees, and most have Master’s degrees. They do it because they love educating and taking care of the children, he said.

“It’s definitely not for a paycheck,” he said. 

Woodard shared an experience he had shadowing a TA in Caswell county. She was in charge of making sure the kids got their rides home.

“When she finished with the last kid, she walked down to the last bus, got on it, cranked it up and drove off…with a busload full of kids,” he said, adding that she’d been there since 7:15 that morning. 

In a press conference later that day, Woodard said the Senate proposal is too one-sided in its plan to trade teacher assistants for smaller class sizes.

“They present a false choice. It’s not either or. It’s both and,” he said. “We should have both smaller class sizes and teacher assistants.” 

Smith said during the press conference that legislators need to remember the difficulty of running a classroom effectively.

“Sometimes we can get to a point in our lives where we forget what it takes to actually educate a child,” he said. 

Parents Together, a national nonprofit that connect parents and gives them resources, recently asked some North Carolina parents what they thought of the Senate proposal to cut TA funding. 

(Responses edited for grammar and spelling)

A former teacher from Greensboro said she couldn’t have survived without her teacher assistant.

“A TA was the only way you could teach because you could be in more places. They know the lessons; you could pull a group and have them working at a different speed with a teacher and the rest of the class working with the other teacher. TAs don’t do just clerical. They are just teachers who don’t have to write lesson plans or administer exams,” she said.

But one parent from Matthews said she liked the idea of having smaller class sizes instead of funding so many teacher assistants.

“I think smaller class sizes would be a great improvement. Teachers only need assistants DSC_0018because classes are too big and out of control. Schools could consider a few floating assistants to help all teachers on a need basis,” she said.

Dawn Bailey of Garner said that teacher assistants are essential and that lawmakers need to see a teacher assistant’s impact in person.

“I am in the classroom often and see first hand: It only takes one child who needs special assistance or who is not behaving to need the attention of one adult. Having a second makes for continuous learning. In addition, there is so much additional paperwork, grading, and students who need additional one-on-one help that I find it extremely necessary!  I would be VERY disappointed if they cut these positions. Have lawmakers spend one full day in a kindergarten classroom and see how they vote!” she said.

Woodard echoed that last sentiment during the press conference at Pearsontown last
week. 

“Go to your schools. Walk the halls, sit in your classrooms, watch your teachers and your teacher assistants,” he said in a challenge to lawmakers. 

But according to Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, many lawmakers already know what life in a classroom is like. 

“Most members of the General Assembly visit classrooms on a regular basis,” he said in an email. “I visit classrooms and schools regularly as well.”

He praised the senators who have been shadowing TAs, saying that it was “great” that they were observing how government policies affect classrooms. 

And he also mentioned a letter he sent out two years ago encouraging all legislators “to ‘walk a day in the shoes’ of our teachers during ‘American Education Week’ of November 2013.” He said dozens took him up on the offer. 

And these visits aren’t just an education for lawmakers, he said. 

(Photo Credit/Office of the Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina)
(Photo Credit/Office of the Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina)

“For me, spending time in the classroom as well as having small round-table discussions at the school, are very beneficial for me and the teachers. Often times teachers are only provided one view point of a policy, and sometimes the viewpoints are based on inaccurate information. After a dialogue and answering their questions, the teachers have a much a better understanding of why policies are created,” he said in an email.

The impact of the Senate’s proposal to cut TA funding could have had far-reaching impacts. Rep. Larry Hall (D-Durham) tweeted out a list recently that shows the reduction in TA positions in various counties under the Senate budget. It shows negative percent changes ranging from about 39 percent in Robeson County to 96 percent in Brunswick.

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But recent developments indicate some movement on the issue of TA funding. Movement that may cheer TA proponents.

The News & Observer reported that Senate leaders say they’re willing to fund both TAs and driver’s education — another contentious cut proposed in the Senate budget — in exchange for compromises from the House.

Teacher assistant Ron Smith with a Pearsontown student (Photo Credit/Alex Granados)
Teacher assistant Ron Smith with a Pearsontown student (Photo Credit/Alex Granados)

The Senate compromise would fund TAs at the same level as last year, but end the ability of school districts to use that money for other educational purposes, the article stated. 

According to the article, a number of other House education proposals might also end up being cut to facilitate the compromise. 

The news that TA funds may be saved will likely be welcomed by Smith.

“Children just love you and they want to be loved. And they want to know that you care and that they matter in your life,” he said. “That’s all it really means. It really means that you are able to impact something or impart something into that child’s life. That’s so gratifying.” 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.