Back to Bellyaching about Work

When I first admitted to a few of my colleagues that I was being treated for anorexia and was taking Sertraline, I discovered some of them were on the very same, or similar, medication for a variety of nervous complaints, especially older people who’d been in the department for a long time.

This is probably just the wear and tear of being alive: over time you get worn down, psychologically frayed: my colleague’s son fell off his bicycle and suffered a life-changing head trauma at the same time as she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She found God, Sertraline and unreasonable irritation with her work-mates almost simultaneously. Another colleague died, abruptly, of pancreatic cancer, in her 50s.

Or maybe it’s the exact opposite. Maybe if you have a relatively easy life, with washing machines, the NHS and little fear of war or famine, the worry part of your brain turns inwards, starts to eat itself. You worry about climate change, you fear some unknown future existential threat; you worry about your identity and place in society, about how unfamiliar the world has become. You worry about worrying all the time.

Another possibility, though, is that some parts of our psyches aren’t nourished by our job, that our sense of self-worth may be eroded by spending all our days as the supporting act, never coming into our own, always the bridesmaid. Is it significant that many of us are 2nd income house-spouses earning pin-money and reliant on our partner’s better salary to survive? You can’t live on an LSA’s salary alone.

I know I’m making spurious, unproven connections, but think about it: we deal all day with children who are trying to overcome profound barriers to their learning, yet we have little formal pedagogical training or authority. We’re at sea in that easy, jargon-littered language teachers use to reinforce their solidarity and sense of professionalism. We hover at the edge of their conversations while they say things like, “Take the PPGs, and I mean those with CAT scores in the normal range: when you look at their Progress 8s – well I don’t need to tell you!” (Actually, you do need to tell me!)

(I need to say, here, that almost all the teaching staff at our school is very appreciative and supportive of what we do, but their kind expressions aren’t reassurance enough. In my case, I think they’re just saying it to be nice, but then, the other LSAs work much harder than me.)

Learning support assistants comfort children in psychological and emotional crisis, yet are not therapists and have no formal psychological qualifications. Some of our students are severely disadvantaged at home by poverty, or abuse or narcotic-dependency or social and mental inadequacy, or simply neglect, sometimes all five. They are distracted by these troubles yet we must help them learn without having any social-service role. In each of these areas we must defer to the experts, pass our concerns on to them and walk away, because our amateurish interventions could do actual harm. Then, because of the student’s right to confidentiality, we will hear nothing more about it. We are excluded.

The kids don’t recognise us as figures of authority, either. It is very difficult for us to curb bad behaviour. In class, you need to tell on (of?) them to the teacher to get them to stop, in which case they feel you’ve betrayed them. In the school yard, it’s even more problematic. Often they will get themselves into hideous trouble because they forget that the LSA is a member of staff with a duty of care to them and to the school. You’ll be standing right in front of them while they jovially set fire to their friend’s PE kit, or rip the branches off the one surviving cherry tree.

And students are very vulnerable. Their new, unfinished senses of self are very fragile. They crave attention because they need their existence to be recognised, but they’re easily damaged, easily crushed. It makes them terribly risk-averse, socially, and desperate not to be singled out, desperate to find protection, comfort and belonging in the tribe, even if the tribe is on its final warning and is still smoking weed behind the shipping container where they keep the cricket nets.

Teachers and LSAs have to be so careful of these kids, even when they are being horrible and ruining lessons. Parents are acutely aware of their children’s vulnerability and are desperately anxious for them to do well. They know how momentous and how singular this educational opportunity is. Each successive generation squanders that opportunity when they are teenagers. We only realise when we’re older that we’ll never have such a facility for learning again, combined with the time and lack of responsibility. So, every morning
parents deliver their precious children into the school’s care, tormented by the knowledge of how unprotected they are. They entrust the school with their education and their physical and mental well-being. Our sense of responsibility is enormous. Yet LSAs are hampered in the extent they can effectively respond to the challenge.

In fact, some studies have found that children make LESS progress if supported by an LSA! This seems to be specifically in cases where the teacher leaves the instruction of a difficult child to an LSA with little subject expertise. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion of these studies is that children with special educational needs learn best when TAUGHT by a TEACHER. LSAs must support the teacher, not substitute for them.

Is it any wonder, then, if we begin to feel a little ineffectual? A little insubstantial? So easily replaceable that we already seem to be fading away…

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