Teaching Oddness #1: Teacher’s Aides, HS Version

Do outsiders know what TAs are? I went looking for research on this point, and could find none. These descriptions aren’t accurate, and most of the rest refer to employed teacher aides.

Teacher’s Aide is a student elective “class” in which the student provides the teacher with free labor as needed.

I get a bit stalled here, because the same practice can be used for neutral or ill. Arguably, there’s no “good”.

Neutral: Why would any student sign up to be a gofer? It’s not for the resume value, I assure you. But high school students are required to take a full slate of classes, and electives are in limited supply. So at a certain point, a mid-tier student with a good GPA but every intention of going to a junior college is left with no appealing electives. Every semester, students with schedule holes have to find somebody to work for, or they’ll get stuck in an actual class with responsibilities and grades, a class they have no interest in taking.

Some of them are assigned to run errands for the front office, taking notes out to the teacher rooms and back for counsellor call-outs, direct mail delivery to students, getting a teacher’s signature on a document, whatever. But schools only need three or four office TAs.

The rest of the students beg teachers to take them on as either doorstops or free labor, in exchange for an A. Because TA jobs get graded, and any grade less than an A raises eyebrows. (Colleges exclude TA from GPA calculation.)

Admins spend some serious cycles on TA assignment. First, the notes come out telling us that no teacher can have two TAs per class. (Yeah, what? OK.) Then out comes the notes begging teachers to take some TAs that still don’t have assignments. Then, occasionally, a TA shows up at the door with an administrator and a question, “Can you use a TA?” and while the answer would otherwise be “No”, the administrator keeps asking until the teacher says “Yes”. Then hours are spent entering these into the schedule for attendance and assignment and transcripts.

I’ve concluded tentatively that the student TA system is both a significant source of free labor to teachers and schools, and a non-trivial burden for teachers and administrators when willing users of that free labor can’t be found.

Many teachers, those teachers who come in each day with their task list set a week, or a month, a year, or three years ago—these people with a plan, they love TAs. Good, yes, I have a million little tasks to be done. Grade this quiz I created three five years ago, then enter the test scores. Create my bulletin board decorations, using this design. These are the ones who have to be told they can’t have more than two TAs per class.

I’m the teacher who was forced, year one, to take a TA. The AVP showed up at my door, just as described above. I was 4 days into my first job, and already knew I had no use for a TA, especially when they told me I couldn’t use him for the single most essential task eligible for delegation: copying.

That’s the insane part: WE CAN’T USE THEM TO MAKE COPIES. Moreover, no one seems to think that, so long as we have all this student labor going begging, a COPY CENTER MIGHT BE A GOOD IDEA. Nothing causes teachers more unforced stress than needing the copy machine when it’s broken or unavailable, thanks to a 20-teacher queue in the morning or lunch. A colleague and friend once took up lunch running 50 sets of 30 page documents. When a week later she announced her transfer, I told her she wouldn’t be missed. I wasn’t entirely joking.

What was my point? Oh, yes. So I had a TA year one who sat at my desk and surfed the web. He wasn’t a bad kid, although I can’t remember his name. His only responsibility was to sit in a nearby room during tests with my top kids, as my room wasn’t big enough to hold thirty kids and cheating was rampant. Pulling out the top kids ended that little game.

I don’t remember TAs being available at my next school, but I just texted a former colleague and will update this space.

My current school happily doesn’t pressure teachers to take TA, but who needs administrative pressure when students apply guilt? My first year at this school, one girl begged me to let her TA. She showed up late and texted each day. I vowed never to be suckered again. Except I did the next year, when a stoner begged me to let him TA my pre-calc class. He was worse than useless, but a better conversationalist than the girl, so there’s that.

But then, it all changed. Last year, Rufus, an exchange student and a top performer in my trig class, convinced me to let him TA, and then another favorite football player, Ronnie, begged me for a chance. I figured I may as well spend time with students whose company I actually did enjoy.

Rufus worked with my students, paying a little too much attention to cute girls, but with that exception, he was very good. Ronnie wasn’t as good in math and definitely liked distracting cute girls, but one day he volunteered to clean up my office space. Kid worked like a fiend, and no one recognized my room.

As I mentioned, Year 6 was busy and here, I have to break off a bit to explain something.

Full-metal, 4×4 block has killed my love of grading. We cover a year’s worth of instruction by the end of January. My assessments are difficult, and I’d rather give them less often, but I pretty much have to give a test or quiz every five or seven days to have grades for progress reports. Since I’m designing a new test system, I was spending much more time building and grading assessments already.

And that was before year 6, when I had two new subjects (trig and history) and three preps (subjects taught), four classes (no free prep period) and 110 students in the second semester.

My returned test lag time was now over a week, which really nagged at me. My work life was becoming something like create a test, created a key, grade a test, enter the grades, turn the test back, lather rinse repeat. Amd that’s without all the curriculum for the new classes. Mind you, this is a typical teacher complaint, but this is all work I typically enjoy. I was just running out of cycles.

Rufus was taking my history class as well as operating as my TA, and knew how slammed I was. He offered to grade. By this time, he’d proven himself reasonably trustworthy, so I decided to risk it. I’d create the key and the point system, have him grade a few samples, and then let him go.

Wow. Huge difference. I still reviewed the grading, adding or knocking off points, but time spent was cut from six to one hour. Rufus bragged to Ronnie (does this sound like Highlights?), who demanded he be trusted with grading as well.

Ronnie and Rufus provided the first really positive TA experience I ever had. I took them out for Starbucks at year-end, and am still in touch with both.

Last semester, Jacob, also from a previous trig class, asked if he could TA and I asked him if he minded grading. I worked Jake so hard I gave him cookies and Starbucks cards for Christmas, and told him I’d violate regulations to give him some service hours if he needed them. Jacob saved me dozens of hours. I couldn’t get over how I could use student labor to make my life easier.

This semester I have three, count ’em THREE, TAs: all previously successful students, all aware when they signed on that they’d be expected to grade or, occasionally, help students. I put one in each algebra 2 class.

I’m less conflicted about having three TAs cover the work than I was giving it all to Jake. While he didn’t seem to mind, I was bothered by the idea that one person was contributing so significantly to my workload reduction. Somehow three kids making life easier for me doesn’t seem as bad. When it was just Jake (heh) it took about 4 days to grade 50 tests, even with my working as well.

To illustrate how much they’ve decreased my workload, we’ve just done the cutover at mid-term, which is always tough. We have to both finish final grades while starting brand new classes with brand new kids. I’m teaching all four classes again, no prep, and 109 algebra 2 students, with another 20 in my geometry class.

I gave the first quiz on Tuesday. Each of the three TAs graded a class set, aand I had the grades in the book on Friday. Unreal. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have had that first quiz done for another week. Instead, I was able to review the tests, see who scored well on my pretest but tanked the function quiz, and vice versa. I’ve got time to redo seating, catch low scores early, call kids in to fix misconceptions. It’s great. My TAs also chide me on the state of my desk, and pressure me to collect all the papers and dump most of them, after review. I’m always worried I’ll toss something important.

I also enjoy talking to my TAs, who I chose because I liked and knew that I might be able to help in some way. I have at least once good talk with them a week, and advise them on college choices, course choices for the upcoming year, whatever.

But I can’t get over the fact that I’ve been freed from so much work without it costing me anything. I’m not alone, I know; many teachers brag about how much they turn over to TAs. I also remind myself that many teachers use scantrons and multiple choice tests. I spend substantial hours developing good tests, and I still review and evaluate all the tests before they are returned. I’m new to this; give me a few years and I’ll probably be one of those teachers griping I can only have two TAs a class.

So there’s the neutral use.

But the TA position can often be used to cover up scheduling shortfalls. As mentioned, schools are legally required to give students a full schedule of classes. In many struggling schools, the administration can’t keep enough teachers to offer all the classes needed, and so they use the TA slot as a stopgap. I very much doubt schools use this as a source of cheap labor for teachers, but many kids just can’t get the credits they need to graduate. I’ve mentioned before that the district controls the catalog; the catalog controls what can be assigned, so if a district offers “teacher’s aide” or “independent study” then they can use it to cover up a multitude of sins.

As I said, I can’t really make a “good” argument for TAing–at its best, it’s a way for kids to get out of taking a class and make some extra money by selling advance copies of tests. At its worst, schools use them to keep their doors open, rather than flatly refusing to fake it. We need more high schools refusing to take students, putting pressure on districts and states to address the problem.

Why is there so little data readily available about school’s “hidden work force”? Many tasks could undoubtedly be automated, particularly the office TAs. But then, strawberry farmers, schools will only automate when they lose cheap, free labor.

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19 responses to “Teaching Oddness #1: Teacher’s Aides, HS Version

  • anonymousse

    Wow. I’ve never heard of TA’s (they obviously didn’t exist when I was a kid). What a self-evident structural failure. If the point of school it to learn stuff, how is doing gruntwork for a teacher = learn stuff?

    I realize my perception of school is out of date: the point of school is not to learn stuff, the point of school is to occupy kids 7 1/2 hours a day. So I guess TA = occupy kids 1 of 7 1/2 hours=success.

    Another reason for homeschool/private school. But it really is sad.


    • educationrealist

      Homeschool is a luxury good for men who have wives who don’t mind sitting at home.

      They’ve been around for a long time.

      • anonymousse

        “Indeed, the share of stay-at-home mothers in the country has risen, from 23 percent in 1999 to 29 percent in 2012. That’s for all mothers with minor children at home; for those with children younger than 6, 36 percent were out of the labor force in 2013”

        First result of a google search. Its from a Washington Post article.

        You have an unusual definition of ‘luxury.’


      • educationrealist

        No, for many people it’s a luxury they can’t really afford.

  • txredd

    This doesn’t directly address the topic of TAs — I’ve never used one. Our school district issued laptops to every student at our school in January, and I designed their first test as a multiple-answer online test with one open answer question that I had to grade by hand.

    What a revelation. I had finished grading the first class period’s tests by the end of the second class period.

  • Randy M

    I was always a bit irritated by TA’s when I was a student with a full load of academic classes. As a teacher I might have appreciated them had I had any and been organized to make use of them.

    I wonder if there is ever any effort put into putting TA’s into classes that they struggle in in the hopes that they will absorb a bit more through hearing it a second time?

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  • EB

    As a former K-8 teacher, I never had a TA. But the HS students from across the street did come over and sweep floors/erase blackboards/empty trash as soon as the little kids had left. Nice! Especially since the one incompetent and overworked custodian seemed unable to make a dent.

  • RationalExpressions

    I thought allowing students to grade tests was a FERPA violation. And I’m almost positive that having kids enter grades is most definitely a FERPA no-no. Not to mention the possible errors, intentional or accidental, that a student might make given access to his peers’ grades.

    All that being said, I know many teachers who allow their free labor to do these chores.

    • educationrealist

      Interesting. In my case, I review the tests and often dramatically change the grades–the TAs don’t really understand the difference between a minor mistake and a bigger one. I think FERPA only involves transcript grades, but am not sure.

  • Jake

    Not sure if you check comments on older posts, but I thought I’d add something here.

    I can think of one case where being a TA is a net good for the student. If the student is considering a career in teaching, being a TA can serve as almost an apprenticeship, to help them get a behind-the-scenes view of more of what teachers do.

    When I was in high school, I was considering going into a career in teaching, so my Junior year, I asked my favorite teacher if I could be a TA in his class during one of my elective blocks. As a TA, I got to plan and teach several lessons, assist with grading, and be an additional asset to help set up and monitor the labs (this was an intro to science course). I basically got to be a part-time teacher for a semester (on a very limited basis)

    As part of the TA process, it helped to show me that there was a lot more to the teaching job than I had originally thought, and helped push me to a different career, where I think I have done much better than if I had chosen to become a teacher. I strongly believe that the TA position I had there was a great benefit to both my teacher and myself.

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