Better use of support staff in schools is key to future school improvements. Jane Blaikie reports.

All in together (l to r) Principal Vaia 'Uau Alailefeula, Principal Pearl Murti, administration officer Christine Risdon and support staff associate Rebecca Garlick.

All in together (l to r) Principal Vaia ‘Uau Alailefeula, Principal Pearl Murti, administration officer Christine Risdon and support staff associate Rebecca Garlick.

It’s as clear as Bill English’s budget deficit, that public education will struggle to gain extra funding in coming years.

But NZEI the Ministry of Education and the School Trustees Association believe that gains in student achievement can be made through schools better integrating support staff into their day-to-day running.

A tripartite working group has been busy; attending conferences, surveying members, visiting schools, and selecting schools for case studies and further research. Its recommendations will be delivered to the Secretary for Education later this year.

But one school, at least, is already walking the talk: “You can’t underestimate the role of our support staff, they do a brilliant job,” says Pearl Murti, principal of Wainuiomata Intermediate School, north-east of Wellington.

“Our support staff work alongside teachers to lift student achievement, to ensure that these kids are getting a really good deal. We couldn’t function without them.”

Wainuiomata Intermediate survived a big shake-up of schools in the valley 10 years ago, when 14 schools were merged into eight. The decile 4 school has a role of some 360, of whom around 60 will arrive at school working at below their age level. Pearl says that in two years, “These kids have got to be functioning at a good level at high school.”

Some will have English as a second language, some will have high learning needs, and some will be a few years behind but “who can easily be caught up with extra work”.

There’s a dedicated teacher of reading who works with very high needs kids, then a specially trained support staff member who works with the next level of students. “Her role is actually quite complex,” says Pearl. A further five teacher aides work in a variety of roles, including with individuals and small groups of students.

The key to it all, says Pearl, is regular and timetabled professional development. For example, all school staff” including the principal, admin staff, the caretaker, teachers and teacher aides – recently attended a professional development day on behaviour management, along with other schools in the valley.

“Everybody has to be on board with this, so they are part of the PD that we are running school-wide.” But it’s not just with behaviour PD that this happens. When the school has undergone literacy and numeracy initiatives, support staff also have relevant PD.

Professional focus

Associate Principal, Vaia’Uau Alailefaleula, schedules regular sessions for support staff to meet. “We get together for celebrations and practices and whatever, and we provide the PD.”

The tripartite support staff working group has identified six areas of professional focus that, when done well, can lead to more effective use of support staff in schools:

  • Induction and training
  • Role definition, guidance, support and mentoring
  • Right person/right job specialization
  • Teamwork and culture
  • Productivity through effective systems and relationships
  • Capability for change.

Like most of Wainuiomata Intermediate’s support staff, teacher aide Rebecca Garlick has worked at the school for a number of years. “I did teacher aide training while I was at home being a mum. I thought, ‘Ok, this is what I want to do.'”

She says that support staff must be flexible, ” We can go from working with individuals, one-to-one, to working with small groups and small classes.

“Every child is totally different, and as a teacher aide, you go in there open-minded and help wherever or however you can. It can be social skills or numeracy or literacy.”

Good communication

She emphasizes that what makes this work is good communication. “The teachers will say, ‘This is the planning that we are looking at, would it be possible’ or ‘how would you go doing this?’ You don’t mind because everyone’s working together.”

Admin staff also have varied roles, including working with new parents as children transition from primary to intermediate, and running “the front of house”.

“They are the people who know how to deal with parents” they’re the positive, welcoming side. If they didn’t do their job right, we would have lots of grumpy parents. It frees us up for teaching,” says Vaia’Uau.

Another feature which helps with an integrated school workforce is that support staff have their own dedicated work space.

“We do have a room,” says Rebecca. “And we have our own pigeon holes so we are filled in on everything that the teachers are filled in on.

“We are appreciated, and it means we go in and do the work. We may see a child’s name on our list, who we’re going work with, but if we see someone else struggling, we’re not going to sit back and say,˜well you’re not on my list’. I’ll take them as well because they look as though they could do with a bit of a helping hand.”