County’s teaching assistants left in limbo

Published 8:29 pm Saturday, August 8, 2015

Beaufort County teaching assistants have been left uncertain of the future, as the North Carolina General Assembly continues to battle over a past-due budget for this fiscal year.

The House proposed a budget that maintained the same funding for teaching assistants as last year, but the Senate has proposed to cut this funding in half and instead funnel that money into hiring more teachers and lowering class sizes.

This has left the approximately 57 state-funded teaching assistants in the county questioning how the next school year will look, and for some, whether or not they will have a job.

Vickie Wilkinson is one of those assistants who may no longer have a job.

She said she feels “deflated” and “depressed” about the situation because she loves what she does but feels as though the state doesn’t value her work.

“I just feel like all of my work has just been poured down the drain. … I just want to be in a job that I love and I’m feeling like I’m being effective,” Wilkinson said. “I just have this horrible feeling that I’m not going to be going back and it just kills me.”

Jackie May, a teaching assistant at Eastern Elementary School, said although she worries about the job instability, she worries about the children more.

“By taking teaching assistants out of the classroom, we’re really hurting the children. … These are the people who are going to be in charge of our country one day,” May said. “You never know until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

She said she rarely has time to sit down during a school day, and most assistants are college-educated and ready to help with instruction.

“I think people think that we’re babysitting or just sitting around doing paperwork. We are actually instructing,” May said.

Don Phipps, superintendent of Beaufort County Schools, said the county has tried to make up for the dwindling state funding by using local funds, but if cuts are not made, the local money will be in danger of running out. As it stands now, there are 29 locally funded assistants in the county, he said.

“We have seen over the last few years an erosion of support at the state level,” Phipps said. “Our teaching assistants today are more instructional. They’re an extension of the teacher.”

“I think the impact is going to be real on our students.”

Jennifer Walker, a teacher at Eastern Elementary, said she doesn’t know what she would do without an assistant.

She said the prospect of reducing class sizes is unlikely to come to fruition, as the school has neither the room nor the money to build more classrooms.

“My biggest concern is just, I feel like people that are making the decisions aren’t really sure or aren’t really aware of what all the assistants do for us,” Walker said. “We’re a team and we’re always on the same page. I consider my assistant like my co-teacher.”

Walker said most people don’t realize what it’s like to teach younger students, as teachers have to deal with academic lessons along with individual testing, teaching basic skills and dispelling behavior problems.

“It requires us to have all hands on deck,” she said. “How do we possibly juggle all this?”

Jennifer Taylor, who has been a teaching assistant at Eastern Elementary for nine years, said she is concerned about the prospect of having to split her time between multiple classrooms.

“You need a full-time assistant, and that’s not just because of their age, but it’s because of behavior,” she said. “Unless you are in a classroom and see all that’s going on, you really have no idea.”

“You really can’t argue with ignorance because they really don’t know,” she said.

Phipps said the county will do what they can to support teaching assistants, and decisions at the local level will not be taken lightly.

“I know how vital they are to the nourishment of those children, if you will,” Wilkinson said, tearing up as she spoke. “By the time I’m through with this, (the legislature is) going to know my name.”