Gaining Ground: Recognising your changing roles

There is no silver bullet for the teacher workload crisis. But recognising the changing roles and increased expertise of support staff is a great place to start.

The work of most categories of support staff has changed dramatically over recent decades. Long gone are the days when teachers’ aides equivalent of ‘parent helpers’ – these days they develop tailored learning plans, contribute to Nationally Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD) data collection, liaise with specialists and much more – and often they also possess specialised qualifications and extensive practical experience.

At Galen College, a secondary school in Victoria’s north, a small team of non-teaching assistants are crucial to the learning outcomes of students. Asked what her role entails, Learning Mentor Linda O’Donohue listed the following:

  • Follow the teacher’s direction and work collaboratively with them
  • Grow trust and rapport with all students to gain their trust
  • Support the teachers and students.
  • Undertake behavioural management
  • Support students emotionally
  • Work with students with learning difficulties
  • Work with students in class who need extra support
  • Provide weekly mentor notes
  • Help students set goals.

Tracey Spiel, IEU Victoria Tasmania Organiser, is not surprised by the length of Linda’s list. For classroom-based support staff, “gone are the days when they were volunteers and helped students with, in the main, reading”.

She says new technology and changes to curriculum and community expectations have had an effect, but support staff have also been “heavily impacted” by the extra loads besetting teaching staff.

“Work intensification across the whole school community has meant that tasks done by others have been redistributed to support staff more and more. 

“This is not necessarily a bad thing. Support staff are capable, smart, and above all adaptable. Many of the tasks allocated to teachers are not tied to their teaching practice and can be productively performed by support staff who are willing and able.”

Support staff are education’s secret weapon against teacher burnout.

Tracey believes schools should audit the tasks allocated to teaching staff and administrative leaders and shift many of those non-teaching tasks to support roles.  

“For example, a daily organiser role does not require teacher registration or qualifications. This role can be done by support staff. The same goes for The Victorian Assessment Software System (VASS) Coordinators, Learning Support Officer (LSO) Coordination roles, and interpreters and translators.”

Support staff can also take on some administrative work falling to teaching staff.

Thinking outside the box

“Support staff need schools to think outside the box. You may very well have the ability and aptitude for a role not traditionally held by support staff. This is happening already with NCCD data collection, but there are very few schools giving preparation time for this to occur within working hours, with many staff forced to take work home.

“Risk assessments for excursions and camps is another example. There does need to be some input from staff who know the students involved, but this doesn’t need to be the teacher. If curriculum-based support staff do risk assessments for their classes and consult with teachers and leadership this would enable teachers to relinquish this responsibility.” 

At Galen, Linda plans her timetable around the classes of the students she is assisting, rather than teachers, but she says it is vital to “grow a rapport’ with teachers so they work as a team in the classroom.

“I am a strong believer that if you have a good relationship with your teacher in the room, then working together with the students will come easier.”

But the relationship building goes further.

“Sometimes the student you are in the room for may not want you to help them, as they feel they are “different” to everyone else. I always find getting along with the whole class is a huge benefit to help overcome that student feeling like you are there only for them. 

“I often work with different students in the class or have a chat with the students. I don’t just pick out the students I’m in there for, as students work off their peers a lot.”

Linda says schools can best utilise learning mentors by “giving them the opportunity to grow and allow them to be a part of meetings that are relevant to the students they support”. 

“I also think mentors need to be trained before they are thrown into a classroom for the first time. Some mentors go to classes and are unsure what to do, or don’t have the skills to allow them to be a part of the classroom.”

Tracey agrees that education support staff require more training and “PD in areas of need within a school”.

“This is not routinely readily available to staff unless it is online and outside of work hours.” 

Tracey says education support staff need more ways of advancing their careers within a school or sector – there is very little flexibility written into awards and agreements. 

And they deserve more respect and recognition for the important roles they perform.

“In some schools this is part of the culture and it engenders a great feeling among all staff. Sadly, it is lacking in many more.”

And the changing roles of support staff also need to be reflected in their salaries, which haven’t always “kept up with the changing complexity of roles and higher education requirements”.

Career structures

To this end, the IEU VicTas has negotiated improved classification structures and role descriptors to ensure support staff have career structures and salaries to better match support staff with work, duties, expectations, experience and qualifications.

In NSW support staff received significant improvements in the most recent enterprise agreement. Almost all classroom and learning support and administrative staff received pay rises of between 5% and 13%. The pay rises brought Catholic support staff in NSW in line with their colleagues in the public sector.  

“Over the last decade in the Victorian Catholic sector, we negotiated overhauls of the middle and upper levels of the ES scale, opening up new salary bands for experienced staff and ensuring that the descriptors they would rely on when seeking reclassification were clear and reflected the actual work they did in schools,” says IEU Victoria Tasmania Assistant Secretary Simon Schmidt.

In a recent major Catholic Agreement, all education support staff staff were lifted off Level 1 salary rates which will now only apply to staff undertaking a formal traineeship to the higher pay rates and greater number of experience-based classification steps in Level 2.

“We also negotiated a new classification stream called Health and Wellbeing Services, which applies to first aid officers, nurses, speech pathologists, and psychologists employed within schools. This will ensure that these employees are correctly and consistently classified and paid according to their qualifications, experience and responsibilities.”

The Victorian Catholic Agreement recognises the increasing professionalism of those further up the salary scale by granting them the same annual Position Allowance payments as teachers and supplies a significant salary restructure for School Services Officers.

And for the first time the new Agreement dictates that ES staff workload issues are discussed in the same way as teacher workloads through school Consultative Committees.

Tracey says there remains plenty of work for the IEU to do.

“The union needs more education support staff members to grow power in this cohort. Many are not aware of their rights under agreements or awards.

“We need to recognise the speed of growth and change within the sector and do our best to reflect that in bargaining with employers for the right wages, conditions and classifications.”

Such efforts help education support staff, but considering their immense value, also benefit schools, teachers, and students.

This update is part of the May 2024 edition of Gaining Ground enewsletter.
Gaining Ground is distributed to support staff members of the IEU two times per year.

You can read past editions of Gaining Ground on our enews homepage or stay across all our updates on LinkedIn.