LSAs are a useful but subordinate part of the Great Education Campaign, a fact not lost on us. We try to help, make appropriate contributions, run errands. We’re good at prompting, encouraging and giving attention to small, neglected creatures who are rarely heard, but it’s difficult to discern the long-term impact of what we do. We are also completely replaceable. When one of us is sick, another can slot into their lessons with no decrease in the quality of provision. If I died, my classes would run just as well.
Because we work with the least able students, eureka moments, when everything clicks into place and the student suddenly gets it, are rare. So are measurable, lasting academic achievements. On those occasions, most credit must go to the student themselves (they deserve it) followed by their teachers. We stand at the side, applauding warmly, because we love them, happy that we helped, but it’s not primarily our victory.
Occasionally teachers openly resent us, especially the young, under-confident ones. They shush us for talking over them or sigh with audible exasperation, even though we are forced to do it: we’re trying to explain their complicated instructions, but the teacher NEVER STOPS TALKING. I think it’s a control thing. They are terrified of silence and what the students might Get Up To in it. But we don’t feel we can advise them. We can’t tell trained instructors how to do their jobs. It isn’t our place. We feel uneasy and apologetic to be in their lessons at all. We feel like trespassers, trying to find something useful to do to justify our intrusion.
Teachers also have this terrible habit of sitting the SEN students right at the front of the room where they can keep an eye on them, something they never have time to do, and really IS our job. This makes the kid almost impossible to get to. I’m always moving up through rows of desks, crouching like an army medic trying to reach the wounded under fire, while, above my head, the teacher machine-guns the room with words.
Perhaps helping the students reach experiential, developmental goals is more our domain, but these are achieved haltingly, if at all. Having “special educational needs” means, by definition, having difficulties achieving normal milestones. And, anyway, these goals are approximate, compromised and vague, often abandoned at times of stress, and might have been achieved just as well without us.
Instead, we LSAs bear helpless witness to the pathos of the children’s struggles. We watch them plodding along behind their peers, floundering and wading laboriously through work that their class-mates skim over with ease and boredom. We see them never completing tasks and thus never properly experiencing success, rarely receiving sincere, meaningful praise. We hear them being told they worked “really well today”, despite getting nothing done, simply because they weren’t particularly disruptive. We witness them being judged and judged and marked and graded every single school day and always being found wanting, so that every school day is an exercise in humiliation and defeat.
For the more aware – those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with very specific, learning difficulties, rather than general, holistic weakness – this can be their experience of school since they were 4. That’s 11 years, by the time they sit their GCSEs. We have to witness them losing sight of the reasons for being here, becoming distracted and disruptive, ceasing to even begin learning because they can see no practical goal or purpose to it, acting up, getting “a reputation”, coming into more and more conflict with the discipline system, turning from sweet, needy, troubled children, who want to be told that they are good, into miserable, defeated tweens, then cruel and vindictive teenagers.
We watch them navigate their days without focus, sometimes distracted by terrible home lives of poverty, abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol-dependent parents, parents in prison, parents committing suicide. We see them being drawn into criminality, gangs, drug-dealing. We meet them coming to school stoned…
And we like them. That is our job. All children need to be liked, especially at their most difficult, but that leaves neither of us with a sense of achievement. There’s no SMART target in that. (SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound).
And then there are those so impaired that their grasp of the whole world is weak, whose days and nights seem to pass them like cloud shadows on the high downs, for whom the whole laughing, shouting, running, gossipy school body flitters about above their heads like bats swarming into the dusk. (I see you, sweet-heart. I recognise you, still slowly packing your bag, in the empty classroom, after everyone else has left. I’ll wait for you.
In the office, we ask each other, “What will become of them after they leave?” and we do not know the answer.