Improving the connectivity of research on teaching assistants: Creating a new space for researchers
The international drive towards the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream schools has become contingent on the creation and utilisation of a paraprofessional workforce, commonly known as teaching assistants (TAs). It is claimed that in many countries, policies of inclusion and provision for pupils with SEN rely heavily on this ‘non-teaching’ workforce. Indeed, its relative intuitiveness – more individualised support for pupils that most struggle – is arguably why it is the model of choice for education systems striving for inclusion, and why it has replicated itself so successfully.
The growing prevalence and prominence of TAs in schools has attracted attention from researchers, who are keen to identify effective approaches to TA deployment and preparation, to describe and measure their impact in various forms, and to characterise their experiences of work. Peer-reviewed papers on TAs noticeably started to pepper the academic literature in the mid-1990s, appearing mainly in US journals. Yet in the subsequent decades, there have been no collections of international writing on TAs.
A new special issue of the European Journal of Special Needs Education (EJSNE) draws together research and perspectives on the role, deployment and impact of TAs from international contexts. This volume, which I have co-guest edited with Anke de Boer from the University of Groningen, intends to serve as an indicative summary of work and thinking in the field to date and as a point of departure for future research and development. The call for papers generated a truly international response. We received nearly 50 abstracts from researchers in 17 countries. The selected papers provide insights into the liminal space between educator, caregiver, behaviour manager, and facilitator of learning and of peer relations, which characterises the TA role.
Papers consider the features of team-working and co-operation between TAs and teachers, and explore the TA’s role as a facilitator of peer interactions, personal care and instructional support for pupils with SEN. Two papers focus on the pupils’ perspective of TA support and the implications for social inclusion and the development of independence. And there is a specially commissioned article from one of the foremost researchers on TAs, Michael Giangreco from the University of Vermont, in which he reflects on more than 40 years’ experience in the field. Our own contribution (Webster & de Boer, 2021) draws attention to a situation that came quickly to light in the process of curating the special issue. While the call for papers shows the extent of the activity and global reach of research on TAs, it also revealed how the field lacks any sort of coordinated network or forum for researchers to convene, share and debate ideas, and disseminate their work.
‘There is a lack of any sort of coordinated network or forum for researchers studying TAs to convene, share and debate ideas, and disseminate their work.’
Many national educational research associations have a special interest group for those researching special and inclusive education. These tend to provide an intellectual home for researchers studying TAs, but research on/involving TAs transcends this discipline, and straddles areas such as economics, feminism and labour relations. The launch of the special issue, therefore, presents a timely opportunity to call for the creation of a network specifically designed to support research on TAs.
Our international research network would be a lively, democratic space in which researchers from across education and the social sciences could convene around the topic of TAs. The pandemic has reshaped ideas about connectedness. It is (technically speaking) easier than ever for researchers to come together with multiple stakeholders to share experiences, discuss, debate, and develop ideas and proposals. We see potential for online gatherings and discussion, leading in years to come to real-world symposia, and even an international conference – all with a major focus on TAs and TA research.
Such an endeavour could greatly expand and empower and raise the esteem of scholarship on TAs. Elsewhere, I have made the case for more international research on TAs, which can be seen as another element of efforts to increase the profile of the field (Webster, n.d.). The publication of the EJSNE special issue presents an unmissable opportunity to reach out to researchers across a range of disciplines, studying any and all aspects relating to the life and work of TAs, who are interested in creating an international network for TA research.
Our paper invites readers to make contact in order to express support for, and thoughts on, establishing such a network. It is an invitation that I am happy to extend to readers of this blog: please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Webster, R. (n.d.). What can international data tell us about education paraprofessionals? Almost nothing. European Educational Research Association. https://blog.eera-ecer.de/data-education-paraprofessionals/
Webster, R., & de Boer, A. (2021). Where next for research on teaching assistants: The case for an international response. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 36(2). https://doi.org/10.1080/08856257.2021.1901368