Classroom Assistants’ use of talk in the construction and negotiation of identities
Wright, Kevin John
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Since 1998 there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of paid, additional, support staff, employed in Scottish primary schools as successive Scottish governments have attempted to raise standards by freeing teachers from administrative and ‘housekeeping’ duties and allowing them to teach. Of these additional staff, currently just over 4000 are classroom assistants, with a remit to provide general class learning and teaching support, including social inclusion and pupil discipline, under the direction of a fully registered teacher. Classroom assistants in Scotland are almost exclusively White women, typically aged 31-50, but concentrated in the 41-50 age range, partnered and with children of school age. These women exist on the margins of school hierarchies as witnessed by short-term contracts, low pay, limited access to formal training and low status. Nevertheless, many classroom assistants seem willing to accept poor working conditions as a trade off for family friendly working hours. Given these working conditions the study sought to consider several key questions: • Why are classroom assistants willing to undertake work that has low status, low pay and insecurity? • How do classroom assistants create and maintain a sense of integrity and commitment to their work? • How do classroom assistants create and sustain positive social and professional identities in this context? • Why do classroom assistants appear to be complicit, to some extent, in their own oppression? To achieve this the study used a critical ethnographic methods to explore the lived experiences of 13 classroom assistants as they supported pupils in two Scottish primary schools. The key insights were firstly that a Bourdieuian account of class, combined with an understanding of patriarchy, provided an explanation of these women’s labour market decisions. In addition, ‘preference theory’, was rejected in favour of a range of constraints, particularly having children and the associated childcare costs, that were considered much more important factors. Secondly, classroom assistants performed versions of ‘emphasised femininity’ as part of their identity as ‘classroom assistants’. Thirdly, the notion of ‘respectability’ was a crucial analytical tool in explaining not only these women’s constant struggle for recognition, but also their continuing oppression. And finally, classroom assistants told a particular type of talk, the ‘atrocity story’, which contributed to the social production of occupational boundaries. The study concluded that from their position of insecure and poorly paid employment, classroom assistants justified and reconciled their position by drawing on talk of moral superiority associated with mothering and caring to construct and perform identities that created the spaces and boundaries from which they positioned themselves as superior to both parents and teachers. As a result they were able to negotiate their roles within the micro-political world of the school.