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The Invisible Team Member, the Special Education Teaching Assistant

I arrived in California leaving behind a short failed marriage and 3 years of work toward a BA in Deaf Education. Hoping that I had a skill that would help me get a job, I checked with the local school district and let them know that I knew sign language. To my surprise, I learned that the day before, money had been appropriated to hire a 1:1 teaching assistant for a 12 year old student named Ruby, who was deaf and autistic. She had just moved to California from New York where she had been institutionalized for her entire life. Willowbrook, the institution that she had lived in, had recently been closed after a news report shed light on the horrible living conditions and treatment of the individuals there. Ruby's Grandmother, who lived in LA, had seen the report on the news and went to New York to bring Ruby back with her to California. After my interview at the district office I was taken to the school to observe Ruby. They wanted to see if I was willing and able to work with a child who had never had any type intervention in her whole life. Although I was in my early 20's and ruby was only 12, she probably outweighed me by 15 pounds. She wore about 30 braids in her hair that stood straight out as if reaching for the sky. I watched as she would bend her wrist down into a fist and then slam her wrist into her forehead. She would jump up and run to the water fountain, not to get a drink, but to bite down as hard as she could on the metal faucet. As horrible and frightening as this was to watch, it reminded me that when you were in pain, at least you knew that you were alive. When I was asked if I was willing to take the job, I naively said, "Sure". I was then instructed to stay the day and come down to the district offices after school to fill out the paperwork. This was my foray into being a special education instructional assistant in California.
The classroom teacher, Joy, was a young, pretty and experienced special education teacher. Although I was inexperienced, she treated me with kindness and respect. We lived close by to one another and soon began carpooling to work. She was warm and funny with the class, but they also knew that they needed to listen to her and follow her instructions. Joy taught me the ins and outs of working within the system, how to write IEP's and that the ability to sometimes see the craziness in a situation and to laugh was essential to the job. She asked for my input and acknowledged my contributions. I was treated as a peer, a partner and a team member.
Joy and I worked side by side for 4 great years. Ruby made progress and we formed a trusting relationship.
I decided to go back to college to graduate and complete my general education and special education credentials. For my first teaching position I taught at a school for 8 years and was lucky to have had the same wonderful assistant the whole time. I moved and began teaching for a different district closer to home. Luckily, I wound up teaching at another school for 8 years and once again, I had a smart, kind and hard working assistant the whole time. There seemed to be classrooms where assistants changed every year, classrooms that no assistant wanted to be assigned to. I felt honored that my room was a place that people wanted to stay. Because Joy and I had been such a team, because she taught me how to be loving yet firm, because she included me in discussions, because she shared important information and treated me with respect, I learned how to treat the assistants in my room. At first I did not realize that not all teachers and administrators held my same philosophy. When I began to see the different teacher/assistant relationships in some other classrooms I truly appreciated what Joy had taught me.
On the back inside cover of each of my Interactive Reading Books ( is a dedication to my and all teaching assistants. I state that a good assistant is an invaluable part of any good program. Utilize them to their fullest potential and give them the respect that they deserve. Their signature may not be on the paperwork, but they are an invisible and valuable member of the team.

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Comment by Sue Wilkinson on October 29, 2010 at 2:39pm
An experienced, motivated, insightful, commited, organized, and caring assistant is invaluable. AND, so are team members that express appreciation. Being positive, and taking time to appreciate other team members contribution is sometimes more valuable than a tiny pay check.
Thanks for this lovely post< Joan!
Comment by Tobi Isaacs on October 27, 2010 at 1:33pm
Love this story-its just beautiful! Thanks for sharing. You are so right-everyone is important from the janitor to the teacher!
Comment by Lorna d'Entremont on October 25, 2010 at 8:10pm
Thanks, Joan, for explaining the important role a teaching assistant has. While I was teaching, I have been fortunate to work with great teaching assisstants. Their rapport with their assigned students were impressive and these SN students's school days were much happier and productive because of them. Lorna d'Entremont

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