Bearing Witness

In theory, Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) help students to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of their learning. We help them gain access to the curriculum and thus to learn skills, and to know things that would otherwise be beyond them, and this should empower them (a little).

Hopefully, we help to broaden their minds, horizons and opportunities in life. We aid them in engaging more fully in the world. We support them in gaining social and intellectual experiences that, without us, they would not have. We help. It’s very valuable work. In theory.

But

The teachers, not the LSAs, own the classroom. it’s their kingdom and their curriculum. They plan and direct the activities. They are the learning experts, with degrees and certificates under their belts, testifying to at least 4 years of subject and pedagogical training. They are the ones with enough expertise to properly differentiate the learning materials. They are the ones with the authority to discipline and direct. They are the ones the students love or hate, whose approval is sought.

They are the heroes, the authors of their own successes and failures. If it all goes well, they glory in their triumph; if it all goes pear-shaped, they are the ones who crash and burn dramatically, passionately. I’m not saying we’re useless, but it isn’t our place to take either the credit or the blame. It would show a laughable self-importance and lack of awareness.

I have watched NQTs (Newly Qualified Teachers) crawl tearfully from the wreckage of beautifully prepared lessons; I have witnessed great teachers, the titans of their craft, rise magnificently to the challenge of year 8 on a giddy rampage, or founder and topple slowly under the relentless daily onslaught of bottom set year 9. I’ve seen the look of doubt and alarm that spread over the face of a poised, self-possessed and highly capable music teacher as she first encountered my charge, whose sole contribution to the lesson was to hurl himself repeatedly from his chair shouting “Oh! Oh! Miss! I’ve fallen!” (I find the best thing to do, in these circumstances, is to lounge in my seat looking relaxed and amused, catch the teacher’s eye and raise mine to heaven. Then, in a quieter moment, I sidle up to them and whisper, “He hasn’t taken his medication. Shall I take him out for a little walk to calm down?” Similarly, when they say to me, “is she like this in other lessons?” I say, “Yup. Worse, often”, which is invariably true and teachers find very reassuring. See? I aim to serve.)

I once heard one of the best teachers I’ve worked with say, to a wolf-pack of bottom set year 10 boys in a dangerous mood, just before Christmas, “Right. I was going to let you watch the rest of the film and give you chocolates, but I’m not now. You can write essay paragraphs for the rest of the lesson.” It is a testament to how formidable she was that, even then, she didn’t quite lose them. Modern pedagogical thinking is that Carrot and Stick classroom management doesn’t work, and it’s certainly not going to if you don’t tell them the carrot is available before you hit them with the stick. How are naughty boys, already in a rebellious mood, going to react to that? They’re going to keep their heads down but do that weird coughing out of rude words whenever the teacher looks down or at the board, that’s how. And then the whole class is going to bubble up in nasty mocking laughter.

Meanwhile, we LSAs haunt the wings, pale and insipid. We swell a progress, start a scene or two,/ Advise the prince; no doubt an easy tool. We are the narrators of their tragedies: Horatio to Hamlet; Nick to Gatsby.

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