Getting to know your LSA – a users’ guide

We respond to our disenfranchisement in different ways. We are very possessive of our charges. Each of us wants to be the expert, the one who has a special relationship with the child, who knows how to manage them, what their limitations are and how to get around them. It’s always disappointing to realise that other LSAs, who support the same learner in other lessons, feel exactly the same.

For example, I like working with students who have autism or Asperger’s syndrome. It tends to be the most capable who end up in mainstream schools. I have quite a lot of experience with them, and feel I can tune in to their scatter-brained mental busyness, and their need for linear simplicity and calm.

And so do all my colleagues.

We admire, support and sympathise with our teachers, but some of us pick up on any mishandling of a child, any failure to differentiate lessons adequately, with a sort of sympathetic, forgiving relish. It allows us to think we know better, at least in this small area. This is comforting, but, deep down, we’re not convinced by our own expertise.

And we’re such cuddle-bunnies! Whenever a tearful year 7 appears at the door, they almost disappear under a scrum of LSAs desperate to sort them out. We virtually elbow each other out of the way, shouting, “Me! Me! Oh, please let ME be the one to look after you!”

We get 2 free periods a week to do our paperwork and plan with our teachers. A lot of my co-workers use this time to create materials and learning activities, worksheets to simplify the tasks the teachers have set the students.

I hate having free periods. The few bits of paperwork I need to complete terrify me because I’m invariably behind with them, but if I sit down to write some of these worksheets, I am frozen by the sheer futility of it. When will these actually be used? How much impact will they have on the learning of my challenged kid? Will they retain any of it? Will the teacher think I’m trying to do her job for her, sort of photobombing her delivery of learning experiences?

Then I think I should try to do or create something more infrastructural, but what? With what authority? I feel nonplussed and useless, so I busy myself making revision sheets (“12 things to say about Macbeth in your exam”) that I know the students will never look at because SEN children are specifically those who find it difficult to work at home, independently, or from worksheets. But at least I feel like I’m doing something.

Luckily we are a large department and someone is always off sick, so there is a lot of cover. I leap up eagerly to volunteer for any classes available and hurry away from this sense of inadequacy. And if there’s any paperwork I’ve failed to do, I can say, indignantly, “Planning sheets!? Reports?! And when would I have time for those, with all this cover?!”

So, work didn’t cause my anorexia, but I think the sense of insignificance was an ingredient in a poisonous brew. I think, once I’d started developing odd eating and exercise habits, this environment gave me incentives to continue. Anorexia gave me purpose and structure and achievable goals in a work life that seemed to lack them. I could occupy myself cultivating my disease, planning restrictions on my eating, planning and looking forward to my next meal, working little bits of exercise, little strenuous asides, into my day, to compensate for perceived excesses in my eating. I could tell myself I was working hard overcoming the obstacles I had placed in my way in the first place, chief among which was exhaustion and hunger.

Anorexia made it far more difficult to be resourceful and think of productive things to do at work, but by then I didn’t need to: it was a terrible struggle simply making it through the day. I could congratulate myself on not collapsing. At my worst, I couldn’t stand still in a lesson because if I did, I’d instantly fall asleep on my feet (or pass out.) My legs would buckle under me, which would wake me as I went down and I could jerk myself upright, again. It was an achievement making it to the end of the lesson, even though the problem was entirely self-inflicted. Even now, I’m perversely proud that I never missed a single day’s work because of my eating disorder, until the moment I was hospitalised.

So perhaps I viewed anorexia as my job. Your job is an essential part of your identity: “This is Jo, she’s the co-director of a large institution, and this is her husband, Xan. He’s anorexic.”

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