Teaching Assistants (TAs) are a familiar fixture in the world of education. For decades, TAs have been employed in every level of pedagogy, from elementary to graduate school, from highschool physics class to early childhood programs. At the elementary level, teaching assistants typically provide instructional support to the teacher, such as preparing materials for lesson plans, or even teaching portions of lessons in small groups. As the role of teacher evolves and expands in response to the needs of students and the expectations of the community, teaching assistants have become an increasingly critical resource. A significant part of the teaching assistant role might involve conducting assessments or providing additional support to students with unique learning needs and educational challenges.
Many future special education teachers work as TAs on their path to becoming licensed classroom teachers, but this doesn’t mean it’s a job that just anyone can do. It takes a certain skill set, energy, and intuition – an intrinsic understanding of how students learn and what teachers need. It requires both communication and interpersonal skills. To be effective in their role, a teaching assistant must have an understanding of student progress and be able to communicate clearly and concisely about it with both teachers and parents. They must have the skills to build relationships with both students and teachers. In short, teaching assistantship is a profession in its own right and worthy of a program specifically designed for its practitioners.
The Rise of the Spero Academy Teaching Assistant Program
Spero Academy’s newly remodeled TA program sprang forth from the innovative minds of the Spero Academic Department. With so much value and responsibility placed on teaching assistants, it made sense to offer a program and a path to advancement for highly skilled staff not enrolled in teaching programs. This new model reimagines the vocation of teaching assistant, challenging common perceptions of the role as a “stepping stone” and recognizing it as the brick and mortar mainstay it really is.
The path to becoming a teaching assistant at Spero Academy typically begins as a paraprofessional. After the first year, paras who demonstrate a high level of skill and interest can apply to the program for a position as a teaching assistant. This new program offers opportunity to those who enjoy the activity and interpersonality of paraprofessional work, but desire further responsibility, influence, and input in the educational environment in which they nurture and teach. Spero TAs provide increased support and direct collaboration with teachers, and have access to the same professional development as Spero teachers as well. This program model supports the growth and aspirations of the career teaching assistants who provide a steady foundation for the programming at Spero Academy. This post is about them.
A Conversation with a Spero Academy Teaching Assistant
So what is the job of a teaching assistant really like on a day to day basis? What draws certain people to the work and what drives them to continue in the field? To get a better idea, we talked to Scout Fleckenstein – a former paraprofessional turned para mentor, who is now in their second year as a Spero teaching assistant. We asked them to recall their initial years as a Spero paraprofessional and to reflect on their current role in the TA program.
So what led you to choose a career in education?
SF: Initially, I was drawn in by the schedule. A school schedule was familiar to me and has built-in vacation, so I don't have to figure that out on my own! The only special ed experience I had prior to Spero was giving clarinet lessons to my friend's sibling when I was in high school.
And what led you to stay in the role?
SF: My first year at Spero was pretty challenging and I actually wasn't sure I would come back. But the satisfaction I felt at the end of that first year made me pause and reassess.
“I loved the relationships I'd developed with my students and learned so much about myself … I knew I could keep growing in this profession.”
And what did you like most about your work as a paraprofessional? Does your work as a teaching assistant build on that?
SF: As a para, I loved working with kids 1:1. It's a great opportunity to build deep and meaningful relationships that are full of empathy, joy and silliness. We can meet each other wherever we are on that day and we have the space to slow down and learn from each other. In my role as a TA, my 1:1 time is often geared more towards academic work, but there's still space to be present with one another and grow together.
What are the aspects of teaching assistantship that draw you personally?
SF: I love working 1:1 with kiddos. Developing that kind of rapport is so fun and dynamic and full of potential. There's a lot of variety to each day as well. I get to bounce between different classrooms, which keeps me engaged and on my toes. Working with different teachers and figuring out what works for each classroom has helped me grow over the past year. I get to use a lot of skills and have constant opportunities to learn something new.
Do you have any advice for people considering a career in teaching assistantship?
SF: Flexibility is key. Staffing can change from day to day, so you never know when you'll have to jump into a classroom to cover an absence. Communication with teachers and staff is equally important, since you're working between multiple rooms and might not be aware of every single dynamic in a space.
What would you say are the most important qualities and contributions teaching assistants bring to the classroom?
SF: Communication is huge! Working between multiple rooms with numerous teachers and staff members means I have to be very clear about my capacity and what I'm able to accomplish. Observation skills are also super important. I have to be deliberate about watching the kids and staff work together and see which strategies are effective and which are not. Data collection is significant for the teachers too, as well as 1:1 academic interventions and prepping IEP goal materials.
“Teachers have so much on their plates … we're trying to help make the job a little more sustainable for them.”
Teaching assistants are busy, active, engaged, and collaborative. There is opportunity for creativity, self-reflection, and the cultivation of personally fulfilling relationships. At the end of the day, a teaching assistant is someone who cares about education and is excited by the idea of helping young learners with unique learning needs access their education. They are someone who sees the challenges of the classroom, both for students and teachers, and devotes their energy and focus to helping both succeed.
Spero Academy is a small district facing high demand. As we grow to meet this demand, so does our need for people. But it will take the right people to meet these needs. If you’re reading this, perhaps this describes you. Perhaps you are drawn to a school environment, school schedule, or the sense of community that schools naturally and historically engender. Maybe you entertain the idea of becoming a teacher, but want to see how the vision in your head compares to life in the classroom. Like many of our career TAs, maybe you crave work that is active and interactive; you love the idea of supporting students’ educational access needs, but the path to teacher licensure and the work of case management just doesn’t call to you. All of these are excellent reasons to consider a career in teaching assistantship.
Spero Academy seeks qualified individuals with a passion for education to join our community. Visit our Employment Page to view current opportunities.