“You’re a…what?” people ask me when I’m talking about my current job. “I didn’t know that this kind of work even existed!”
Although the real term for what I do is Pupil Support Assistant, in the world we’re known as PSAs.
You’ll easily recognise us by the 8.45-15.15 timetable, by the fact that we have holidays 5 times a year (minimum) and no work to prepare for the following school day, and you’ll often hear us complaining about our gross salary in comparison with a teacher’s one.
You’ll find us in the staffroom, eating crisps and chocolates and talking about the pain some pupils cause us.
Love us already? So read on.
I love my job!
Well, only when I’m not bored to death. Let me explain.
I’m at school at least 15 minutes before the bell rings to prepare the classroom for the day. This includes “fun” activities, such as filling the water tray, putting the toys out, making photocopies, etc. Once the bell rings at 8.45, I have to be in the corridor to greet my 5-year-old pupils. And if you think that by “greeting” I mean just saying hello, you’re wrong. I have to be there, reminding them of the daily routine by giving them instructions. And this is not always a fun thing.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
“Good morning guys! How are you today? Take your coats off and put your lanyards on please”. Two seconds later: “Is it lanyard day today Miss Tsompanidi?” Well, you get my point.
Once the greeting procedure has happily ended, and all the pupils are in the classroom, they get some minutes off to play. In the meantime, I keep myself busy by photocopying, organising the pupils’ files and sharpening pencils, which I’m bound to sharpen again at some point during the school day.
Then, it’s time for reading. My school encourages ability groupings so, all our pupils belong to a group according to their needs and abilities. We have Green, Blue, Yellow and Red groups, starting from the highest ability group (Green) and going down to the lowest ability one (Red). And guess what: I often get to read with the Yellows and Reds (Hooray!).
When reading is over, it’s time for literacy/numeracy. My responsibility is to support one group of pupils at a time and keep them on task. The Greens and Blues don’t need a lot of support and are well able to work independently, whereas the Yellows and especially the Reds need constant support and, some of them, even one on one time.
All this takes us up to break time. 15 minutes later, it’s time for the PSAs break. We all meet in the staffroom, where we take some minutes off to unwind, talk to each other and have a snack and some coffee.
Once the break is over, it’s time for more numeracy/literacy until lunch time.
Just 5 minutes before lunch, I make sure that all the pupils get ready. This means going to the toilet, washing their hands, putting their coats on (for the outdoor playtime which comes after the meal), putting their lunch bands on (so that the dinner ladies know what food each child is getting), lining up and going to the lunch hall.
Hold on, it gets more interesting (or maybe not).
During lunch hour, I have to show the children to their seats, cut their food, open their bottles and food containers, tie their shoelaces, wipe the floor if food is spilt (and believe me, that often happens), and finally, clean their food trays and put them away.
Once the lunch is over, the children stay in the playground for about 45 minutes. At this time, I share responsibilities with the other PSAs, and together, we supervise specific areas in the playground. What does this mean? It means that one PSA is responsible for the football area, while others are responsible for the music area, the basketball area and so on.
When playtime is over, it’s time for my break, which lasts for 30 whole minutes (YAY!). This is when I have my lunch and get some time to relax.
After my lunch, I go back to the classroom to assist for the next one and a half hours. During this time, we usually have PE, talk about a new topic (space, water etc.), or give the children some time for free play around the classroom.
The school day ends at 14.55. Five minutes earlier, I make sure that everybody gets ready to go home. This means putting on their coats, and getting together their bags, lunch boxes, water bottles and homework bags. Then, they line up, and they’re ready to go!
When the children have left the classroom and I’m on my own, it’s time for me to tidy everything up (Lucky me!).
It doesn’t sound very exciting, right? Well, it isn’t. I put any stray toys into their proper places, clean up the sand around the sand tray, empty the water tray and stack the chairs on the tables to make it easier for the cleaners to vacuum the floor.
When the classroom is tidy, I move on to the corridor. I make sure all the lanyards are on their pegs and not thrown on the floor as they usually are, and I organise the children’s files (again!). When I have finished, if there is any time left, I sharpen the pencils and put the markers into the correct tub. Sometimes, I feel like I have OCD and, if you do this kind of job, I’m sure you will understand what I mean.
15.15. The bell rings, and I’m free to go.
The next day is going to be pretty much the same. Same routine. Every. Single. Day.
Glass half full or half empty?
I know what you’re thinking. Why do you do this kind of job, you might ask me, if it bores you so much? And, in case it isn’t clear enough, it does bore me.
If this job doesn’t satisfy me, why am I still doing it?
My answer is because I’ve chosen it and I’m still choosing it every day. It would be easy to quit, do something else and wait until I find a job as a teacher. But this would mean that I would probably have to work away from education, as a waitress or a shop assistant, and I wouldn’t be gaining all this valuable experience.
As a newly qualified teacher, having relocated from Greece to the UK, this is my only option. Working as a PSA while waiting to find a teaching position is the best possible way to work in a school and still gain some experience – to move forward.
Now, it’s my second year working in this role. I remember that, during the first year, I was very excited. I didn’t have a clue about the Scottish education system so, working in a primary school contributed a lot to helping me gain an understanding of how things work. I struggled with the language when I first started, so being in school 5 days a week and communicating in English with colleagues and children gave me a big boost. And believe me: when you get to interact with children effectively in their language, and understand everything they tell you, it gives you a huge sense of achievement.
This year, I’m doing everything for the second time round, so it’s become routine. I sometimes feel that this role has got nothing more to offer me and that I’m stuck because there’s not much room for initiative on my part; I have to do what the teachers ask, even if I don’t agree with their point of view. At times, the teacher inside me urges me to do or say “this kind of thing”, but I hold back and remind myself that I’m not the class teacher (Ouch!).
As a trained teacher, I naturally seek more responsibilities. I’m curious about how things will be when I have my own class, when I do planning and assessment, when I organise my lessons and talk to parents. I’m aware that it’ll be stressful, but I’m sure it’ll be exciting!
Everybody has at some point found themselves stalled and I’m no exception. However, this role has also given me positive feelings.
Working with children, even as a PSA, puts me in the favourable position to watch their daily progress and be part of it. I’m happy each time they call me “teacher“, even if that’s not exactly what I am, or when they say that I’m “the best teacher in the world“, even if some minutes later they tell another teacher the same thing (Oh yes!). I feel proud when I see that my support has helped a pupil who was struggling with something.
Working as a PSA might be annoying, especially if you have to do it for a long time, but it’s a rehearsal before you go out there and try to teach a bunch of children for the first time.
It’s an experience that has taught me to work with others and exchange ideas and, most importantly, it has helped me realise that my view might not always be the right one. Working as a PSA offers me a daily opportunity to be inside the classroom, to watch how other teachers, experienced or not, teach. I have access to an inexhaustible source of strategies and techniques, which the teachers offer me with their teaching examples.
I learn from them. I have worked with all kinds of teachers: the most experienced ones, newly qualified ones; sweet teachers and grumpy teachers; teachers that I admire and teachers that I hope I will never resemble. I learn what to do and, most importantly, what not to do. Moreover, I learn what works and what doesn’t work; which strategies I’d like to incorporate into my lessons as a teacher, and which ones it would be better to avoid.
So, what’s the bottom line?
It’s that I choose to see my glass half full. I keep in mind where I was, where I come from and where I want to go, and I take one step at a time. It’s a process that takes a long time, but I know that it just takes patience and dedication to achieve whatever goals you set yourself.
It doesn’t matter if you’re currently doing the most boring job in the world. The only thing that matters is always to look ahead to where you want to go and try your best to achieve your aim.
Sara Tsompanidi is a content writer, based in Edinburgh. Her educational background in primary teaching and her multicultural experiences have given her a broad base to approach education topics. She especially enjoys sharing her experiences and providing practical advice to educators, who are making their first steps in Scotland.
(You can contact her here: firstname.lastname@example.org or find more about her here: https://twitter.com/STsompanidi)