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You could call a teacher assistant “school instructor No. 2,” but that label would shortchange the pivotal role these professionals play in providing much-needed attention and instruction to students. Teachers can’t do it all. As they scribble math formulas and compound sentences onto chalkboards, they might need an aide to float from desk to desk and answer their students’ lingering questions. Teacher assistants also provide what Ruth Cole Burcaw, the former executive director for the North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants, calls “the warm fuzzies.” “Teachers are focused on lesson planning, test scores, paperwork, and administrative stuff, and the teacher assistants sometimes feel like they have the luxury to love those little kids,” she says. “They make sure those kids have somebody at school who cares about what happens to them.” Teacher assistants might work at childcare centers, but many are employed by public and private schools. Unlike childcare workers, teacher assistants (in private and public school settings) typically don’t attend to young children’s basic needs (like bathing and feeding).
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that teacher assistants occupied nearly 1.3 million jobs in 2010; about 76 percent of them were employed by elementary and secondary schools, while 9 percent worked for child daycare providers. These workers should see their profession expand 15 percent by 2020—about as fast as the average for all jobs, the BLS also finds. Job growth will coincide with increases in student, childcare, and preschool enrollment.
On average, teacher assistants made a meager $23,580 in 2011. The highest earners raked in about $36,560, while the lowest earners brought home $17,090. Colleges, universities, and professional schools compensate teacher assistants best, and the highest earners reside in State College, Penn., Dover, Del., and San Francisco.
After earning a high school diploma or its equivalent, prospective teacher assistants may go on to complete two years of college or earn an associate’s degree. Teacher assistants interested in working with special needs children must pass a skills-based test. Their next step is to train at childcare centers or private or public schools. While there, they usually grasp a basic understanding of various school districts and policies. Extra training can also be attained through different unions or professional associations. Once they land a job, these assistants must start the process of reviewing lesson plans with their supervising teacher and learning the best ways to relay that information to students properly.
Those interested in this profession should cultivate sound communication and instructional skills. Because teacher assistants interact with a diverse mix of teachers, students, parents, and administrators each day, patience and people skills are musts. “They have to be able to relate to a variety of folks, so communication skills, I think, are especially important,” Burcaw adds. “They have to deal with parents as well as principals and administrators.”