On a recent morning at the Richard Yoakley School, teaching assistants gathered in the library for a twice-a-month meeting.
Yoakley is a transition school for students who have not succeeded at their base school and is aimed at helping them re-integrate into a traditional classroom.
On this occasion, the TAs were discussing current and former students, including one who is currently enrolled at Yoakley. The group brainstormed support strategies for the student, and eventually one TA offered a simple piece of advice: “He loves hugs.”
The comment highlighted the ways that Yoakley emphasizes personal connections with its students and the ways that school administrators are working to empower TAs as leaders.
The library gathering was a meeting known as a professional learning community, or PLC. While many schools use PLCs to provide teachers with professional development and training, Yoakley for the past two years has also offered them to TAs, an idea started by Program Facilitator Rick Lawson. More recently, the school has empowered TAs themselves to lead the groups.
Principal Seth Smith said the work of teaching assistants is vital and that he wants every staff member to play a leadership role at the school. “I want people that lead, that know what they’re doing and have the confidence and also the information they need to implement that on a daily basis,” Smith said.
To that end, TAs have been instrumental in providing ideas for the school’s social-skills curriculum, including development of a contest in which students decorate classroom doors according to a weekly theme.
At another recent meeting, Transition Coordinator Pete Buckner reported on a student who had left Yoakley and returned to his base school. A teaching assistant suggested that Yoakley staffers should sign a card that Buckner could deliver to the student during a follow-up visit.
In an interview, Buckner said the student became emotional when he received the card. “I was overwhelmed by the staff members in that PLC to come up with that idea,” Buckner added. “They’re always trying to find ways to go above and beyond for our students.”
One of the challenges at the alternative school is to forge connections with students, while at the same time preparing them for success at a traditional high school.
Kim Maples, a special-education teacher at Yoakley, was previously a TA at Fulton High School and said in that role she tried to serve as a complement to the teacher. Sometimes that meant serving as an authority figure, while at other times it meant taking a more nurturing approach.
“You kind of just go off the teacher’s vibe,” she said. “Anything you can do to help that teacher’s day with the students go better, you jump in and you do it.”
In fact, several teachers at Yoakley began their education careers as teaching assistants. Buckner, the transition coordinator, was a TA until four years ago and credits the leadership at Yoakley with encouraging him to take the steps to move into a certified position.
Janice Maples works with special-education students and has been a TA at Yoakley for six years. She said the PLC meetings give TAs a chance to vent, to share and to teach, adding that “when we leave we usually feel better, because sometimes we just need somebody to listen.”
She said it’s hard not to get attached to students and that she worries when she hears a news story about a tragedy involving a young person because she is concerned it might be one of her students.
But she said the encouraging stories are students who are able to turn their lives around, even if they were heading down the wrong path.
Asked how Yoakley supports those success stories, Janice Maples said she tells students that she cares about them like they were her own: “Even though I’m not your mom, I’m not your dad, I care about you, so no matter how many walls you build up, I’m going to tear them down because I’m not going anywhere.”
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.