A Post-Teach For America Reflection: The Case for Teacher Assistants

I recently completed two years of Teach For America (TFA) teaching math and special education in an Atlanta Public School high school. There have been arguments for and against TFA on PolicyMic, and I do not plan to reproduce that debate at the moment; however, I do hope to expound upon a point that I made in one of my earlier articles: TFA gives young people from diverse backgrounds an opportunity to experience educational inequity first-hand. This experience offers them more insight when formulating potential solutions to bridge the achievement gap.

To date, the past two years were the most difficult of my entire life; yet, the lessons learned during that time were not lost on me. One particular educational technique would have been particularly helpful in our classroom and in helping our students better grasp the concepts we taught: The use of teacher assistants.

We must provide teachers with support from below in order to give them more time to focus on their work in the classroom, their lesson plans, and their instructional practices. I use the term “from below” in order to differentiate from support that comes from “up top.” Instead of more administrators, teachers need people to assist them with daily tasks that require less expertise.

Aside from instructional activities, teachers are often barraged with a variety of other jobs, including copious amounts of paperwork, parent calls, meetings, and general administrative tasks. Some of this work is necessary, but not all of it. Last year, an article discussed how teachers in Maryland feel as if they have too much paperwork to complete, which detracts from instruction-related activities.

Solving this problem is easier said than done, and requires a shift in how we value and trust teachers’ work. Giving teachers more support from below by removing some of their basic administrative tasks indicates that we trust them as professionals, and hold them in higher regard. Doctors prioritize their time better because they have nurses' help; lawyers, because of paralegals; and judges, because of law clerks. Not only do these relationships represent more efficient systems, but they also demonstrate the amount of trust we have in these professionals to do their jobs competently.

Miysha Shaw, a 2008 TFA corps member who stayed in the classroom past her two-year commitment, explains, “I would have liked for the administration to trust that I am capable of teaching, and for them to trust that we [teachers] make decisions that are best for a productive, peaceful classroom environment.”

Giving Shaw an assistant is an indicator that she is trustworthy of creating that type of classroom environment, as well as the vision and skill to manage it.

Benjamin Crane, a 2009 TFA corps member, explained, “An administrative assistant would be great to make copies, call parents, pass back papers, so I could focus on delivering knowledge.”

Set free from excess work, teachers would have more time to concentrate on actually educating their students. I saw far too many veteran teachers who were increasingly bogged down by daily paperwork and meetings. These teachers have committed their lives to being in the classroom; yet, they often go without the support they need to fully transfer their incredible knowledge to students.

The call for teacher assistants is not an attempt for teachers to shirk responsibility; instead, it is a call for us to use the time of these professionals more efficiently. Imagine all the extra time that could be spent revising lesson plans, collaborating, and researching better practices. Efficient use of daily schedules could radically transform our education system's productivity.

Providing teachers with assistants is clearly not the overriding solution to the education problem. However, I do believe that hiring these assistants is an important step in fostering trust and respect between teachers, administrators, and communities, while also allowing teachers to meet their maximum potential as educators.

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