Cutting teacher assistants will hurt schools

Twice last week, I passed on the downtown lunch fare to enjoy a far more socially and intellectually invigorating dining experience in North Raleigh. No, I was not in one of the city’s exclusive clubs or hobnobbing with the swells in some elegant private salon.

OK, I was with swells, the children of kindergarten and second grade at wonderful Baileywick Road Elementary School. Two of my honorary grandchildren are students there and invited me to dine with them and their classmates. Let us note the menu was varied and healthy and the milk list was divine, featuring a Piedmont North Carolina white with a delicate bouquet.

I could not help but think later that I wished some of the Republican members of the North Carolina General Assembly could have joined us. For if they spent more time in classrooms and cafeterias in the state’s public schools, talking with teachers and principals and students, instead of in their caucus rooms, they might not be so giddy in their direct and indirect attacks on public education.

Yes, yes. There’s a GOP plan to give teachers a substantial salary boost, 11 percent or so, a raise teachers should have gotten long ago as North Carolina began to lose ground in teacher pay when compared to other states. The decline happened under Democrats, true enough, something of which Republicans delight in reminding us.

But along with that salary hike comes the insulting requirement that teachers surrender a meager bit of job protection called tenure, which in fact is little more than the promise of a fair hearing should they be fired. That part of the proposed budget is nothing more than another slap at teachers who have been under the Republican gun already.

And, to save money elsewhere, GOP senators want to cut funding for teachers’ assistants, which would eliminate thousands of positions, thus leaving assistants in place only for kindergarten and first grade. This is terrible, and it reflects the disengagement of Republicans from the realities of public schools. They don’t seem to want to debate or discuss anything like this. It’s much easier to legislate in ignorance.

Certainly they’re oblivious to the value of teaching assistants, who are teachers’ right arms, and vital, particularly in elementary school.

During lunch at Baileywick, the assistants provide teachers with time to catch up, to plan the rest of the day, to grade, to confer with a principal. Lunch was orderly, and for the kids, fun. Assistants offer all kinds of individual attention to the kids, whether that’s taking care of discipline, or just comforting a child who’s been picked on, telling the kids to clean up, knowing when to let them be a little noisy and when to quiet things down.

One assistant during one of my lunch visits had a fairly long one-on-one conversation with a little guy who was upset. He paid attention. And in the classroom, as assistant can take on some of the multitude of tasks with which we burden our teachers.

And there are more such tasks than there were when some of those Republicans on Jones Street were in school. There are more forms, more tests, in many cases more students. All teachers take work home, dig in their own pockets for supplies, stay on the phone with parents. Assistants do it, too. In some cases, both teachers and assistants have to be surrogate parents, or help children deal with the behavioral consequences of turmoil at home.

We ask a typical elementary school teacher in North Carolina to take a widely diverse group of kids (in one class I visited, a student from halfway around the world was just beginning to understand English) and see to it that they all learn.

It doesn’t take long in an elementary school hallway to see teachers and assistants and principals returning children’s hugs, something that didn’t happen years ago. In many homes, there’s only one parent, and in others both parents are working…but there may be more reasons for the need for closeness than that.

“This,” one told me merrily as she embraced a student, “is the best part of the job.”

Republicans believe, no doubt, that raises will satisfy teachers and quiet the uproar over the ridiculous lack of attention they’ve received. But the GOP leaders also talk about cutting money for school nurses, no additional funds for textbooks, cutbacks on transportation money.

But the plan to cut assistants may be the worst of many bad decisions. They help elementary teachers who need it most, and they help students who need attention the most.

If GOP legislators bothered to seek enlightenment instead of avoiding it, they’d get that.