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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 30, 2009

Evolution of TA role
From “mother/helper” to paraprofessional

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Teaching assistants were first paid to help in Guilderland classrooms 35 years ago when a handful of women gave math and reading remediation as part of a federally funded program.

When the Guilderland TAs were negotiating their first contract — with talks starting in the summer of 1993 and extending into 1994 — they numbered 112, together filling 60 full-time jobs.

Betsy Whitlock at that time had worked as a Guilderland teaching assistant for two decades. She said then that she had watched the role of teaching assistant evolve “from mother/helper to a necessary part of the educational fabric.”

Faith Schullstrom, who was the district’s curriculum director in 1994, said then that the numbers of teaching assistants had increased in the late 1970s and early 1980s as children were mainstreamed in schools and classrooms. She said that, in addition to the children identified as handicapped, “More and more children had complex needs.”

Schullstrom also said that students were coming to kindergarten with different preschool experiences. “There’s a more diverse population,” she said.

Many preschoolers had not had extensive “one-on-one experiences with a parent,” she said, which was important for “language modeling” and “thinking development.”

Schullstrom also said, “Many students enter school with low self-esteem...Often in group settings, they begin comparing themselves at younger ages. It makes it harder for them to take risks.”

As teaching methods have changed from lecturing large groups of students to having students work cooperatively in groups, the need for assistants has increased, she said. “We’re delivering a program that accommodates diverse needs... [with] students actively involved in problem-solving and thinking rather that rote response.”

Schullstrom noted a Regents policy statement on early childhood education recommended that children aged 5 to 9 be in classrooms with 18 to 22 students with two adults — one professional and one paraprofessional.

Judy Slack in 1994 was a teaching assistant at Lynnwood Elementary School who reported to the school board about her experiences. Since retired, she is now a member of the board.

In 1994, Slack told the board how, “in this hurry-up world,” she’d found students whom she said “would crawl down my throat to get closer.”

She said a recurring situation is “students not succeeding because they are really terrified to take a chance.”

Slack told of one “exhilarating” experience that lasted several years. She had been asked to sit with a “terrified student who would shut down during math time.”

“I would teach him individually,” she reported. “Occasionally, he’d answer in a whisper.”

When the student reached the third grade, he whispered to Slack one day in the spring, “I’m going to raise my hand.”

By fourth grade, she reported, “He’d told me to help others.”

By fifth grade, she said, he had gained independence.

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