Stresses & strains of being a teaching assistant | Education Support
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Stresses & strains of being a teaching assistant

5th July 2016

Anna Christina Connelly is teacher and writer. She is interested in union and wellbeing issues. 

As teacher workload hits an all-time high and with pressures on schools growing, it is inevitable that this is now beginning to impact on school support staff.

I have interviewed teaching assistants (TAs) from around the country with many describing how the role has become increasingly demanding resulting in a negative impact on their health and wellbeing.

Challenging pupil behaviour

Teaching assistants often work closely with the most challenging of pupils. Constantly dealing with sometimes extreme pupil behaviour proved to be very stressful for many.

Jayne, a teaching assistant from Newcastle explains: “When I was working supporting an individual child 1 to1 all day it actually made me ill. I worked with a child who had extreme behavioural problems. He’d cause trouble in the class, crawling around and hitting himself and once, he went for a pair of scissors to do himself harm. He then turned on me and said ‘I’m telling on you, you hit me!’”

Jayne describes how stressed this made her feel: “this experience scared me, making me worry that if he had said the same thing at home, or to someone else in the school, he might have been believed over me and I could have lost my job or even worse, my children.” Eventually, this kind of experience began to impact Jayne’s health: “When I get stressed, I start to suffer from dermatitis, and on this occasion I couldn’t eat or sleep with worry. I got really run down and was extremely emotional.”

Catherine, a teaching assistant from Nottingham, said, “I was employed to work outside of the classroom, one on one, with a boy awaiting a place at exclusion unit. Two TAs had already refused to work with him anymore because of the stress his day long poor behaviour had caused them, ultimately affecting their health. After a month of working with him, I understood why and felt the same way too.”

Increasing workload & conflicting demands

All of the teaching assistants we spoke to were finding the workload expectations unfeasible. Seema, working in Ilford said: “My biggest issue is the pressure TA’s are under to do a million and one things that are unrealistic in a given time frame. People are so exhausted it’s health is suffering so much. I am often in tears from sheer exhaustion.”

Catherine agreed. “I constantly have people telling me what to do. The class teachers think they have the right to do this, supply teachers feel they do too, Phase leaders do, my SENCO thinks they do. So you can imagine that it is often quite conflicting and confusing to understand whose instructions to follow. To be honest, at times, it’s chaos: ‘do this, go there, who told you to do that?’ It really stresses me out because I’m expected to be in three places at once. Then people comment if I’m not. It’s impossible”

TA’s often report that all this makes them feel they have been set up to fail, causing them to feel bad about themselves. “I can’t fulfil all of these roles to the best of my ability and I hate how this always ends up making me feel inadequate,” said Seema.

No clear job description & multiple roles

One of the biggest problems facing support staff is they often feel that their job description is not fit for purpose and represents only a fraction of what they do.

The ‘any other duties’ part of the role is regularly open to abuse, with TAs undertaking a wide range of tasks from developing the school website to running school trips. This has been highlighted as a major cause of work-related stress.

Because of low wages and money worries, many must take up second jobs or other part-time roles within school and switch between them, often causing them to feel they are chasing their tail trying to be at each job on time. TAs often double up as the lollipop lady, office administrators, lunchtime supervisor or have roles at after-school or breakfast club. Jill, a Hertfordshire Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA), said: “Multiple roles definitely add to the stress as the pupils have less respect for midday supervisors than TAs. Not having a proper lunch break is exhausting too and I don’t get any planning, preparation or assessment time, I just grab planning time by going to school early or during assemblies – if I am not busy in intervention sessions.”

Seema told me: “Some TAs have several roles, e.g. HLTA, 1:1 TA, year group based support. It is ridiculous for one person to fulfil all these roles.” Catherine said “I’m often told to mark at the same time as working with children.”

Unfortunately, the low status of the role, and the fact that many TAs are now being employed on insecure contracts, means that many feel it is often not possible to challenge school leadership about these issues.

Getting support if job impacting on your mental and physical wellbeing

If your role, whether 1:1 or in class, is becoming difficult to manage, interviewees told me that things did improve when extra support or respite was brought in. So don’t be afraid to ask your line manager. If you feel you can’t, enlist a supportive class teacher or Key Stage colleague to speak to the head about your concerns. Often, heads are simply unaware of what is really happening and will happily change things.  

If you don’t feel you can talk to anyone associated with your school, then the Education Support Partnership exists to provide independent, confidential support and can help you deal with stress and anxiety, bullying, money worries, and any other issues. If for any reason, you are struggling at work or home, the charity can help you. The services are free, private and can even be accessed via email or online chat, if you don’t want to speak on the phone.

If you have any fears about allegations against you, a worrying incident, or any contractual questions then do keep a diary and involve your union as early as possible. UNISON, GMB, ATL and Voice represent the interests of support staff members.

Lastly, we know from surveys and statistics that if you are suffering stress as a result of your work in schools, you are not alone. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s likely that the other TAs are feeling the same. Why not approach fellow TAs and organise a regular support staff meeting which can be a safe space to share collective concerns which are then passed on from the group to leadership? Culture changes like this at whole-school level will give TAs a voice as frustrations become channelled into positive action.

As teaching assistants, you always make sure the children with whom you work are listened to, safe and happy. You deserve the same!

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