The SNA can't help but help against all orders
There is an SNA for every child this year, says Sarah Caden, but we haven't a clue about how much they really help
Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30
If your child started school this week, you'll have approached that classroom with more trepidation than they did. You know, after all, that our large classes are a huge challenge for a single teacher. You know that your "big" boy or girl is really just a baby. Then imagine how you'd have felt if your child had special needs.
Luckily, as Richard Bruton announced earlier this year, every child with special needs will have access to a Special Needs Assistant (SNA) this year. This is lucky for those kids and your typical kids, who also benefit from another adult in the room. Not that, officially, SNAs help the other kids. Hell, SNAs aren't even, officially, supposed to be doing half the stuff they do for the kids with special needs. That's the truth.
"You'd have to love this job to do it," an SNA said to me last week. "The people who do it - mostly women, mostly mothers - fit a particular profile, and we don't just like our jobs, we love them.
"But you just get punched every now and then to remind you not to get above your station. You are a second-class citizen. I'm not a person with a chip on my shoulder. I'm lucky; I love my job. But the way SNAs are treated, it's just mean. And parents don't have a clue."
In your child's class this week, you might well have seen an SNA welcoming children to the classroom, helping to prise them from parents, wiping the children's tears.
Not just for the child with special needs, but the typical kids too. Not that the SNAs should, officially, have been doing any of it. That's not their job description. But then, when it comes to the SNAs' job description, most of us "don't have a clue."
And not just the parents of typical kids, either, but also of the kids with special needs.
Last week, an SNA contacted the Sunday Independent with a notice that had been distributed to all of the SNAs in her school as the new term began. It was a 2014 document from the National Council of Special Education (NCSE) reminding them of what they can and cannot do.
One section listed the "care needs" that fall into their remit, for example, medical needs, mobility needs, Assistive Technology set-up that the teacher may not have time for, and preventing dangerous behaviour to the child themselves or others.
The second section listed "examples of need that may be referred to in professional reports but are not consistent with DES (Department of Education and Skills) circulars."
In other words, "you do this stuff, but that's your look out". This list itemised things like keeping the child on task, helping communication with their peers, assisting with reading and writing, helping to keep the child organised.
You know, you know you know, that SNAs do all of those things. And more. And not just for the children with special needs, as one SNA told me last week, but for kids with non-diagnosed scattiness, or emotional issues, or shyness. Or just immature childishness. Apparently a lot of kids have that.
But SNAs do it above and beyond for the kids to whom they are assigned, the kids with the disabilities. They keep them in mainstream schools not just by making sure they can stay in the yard (thus meaning the teacher doesn't have to bolt after them), or putting any toileting items in place (so the teacher doesn't have to leave the class to do it), or making sure they don't do something awful with a scissors (because, to be fair, the teacher has 28 or more other kids brandishing scissors to watch, too).
They keep them in mainstream school by working on things other than "care needs". We all know this happens. The DES has to know that this happens. But to acknowledge or condone it is to say that SNAs are sort-of teachers. And if they are sort-of, then they have to be trained as such. Then they have to be paid as such.
Why would we walk ourselves into that, when we're currently getting above and beyond out of them anyway?
The SNA who contacted the Sunday Independent last week knows, after many years working as an SNA, what the job description is, officially. But she also knows what she does every day. And to be reminded of the difference between the two feels like a slap in the face.
My daughter has Down Syndrome. There is an SNA in her class and she has wonderful access to her. I couldn't walk away from her every day if I didn't see the SNA there; but to explore how much an SNA does for her is to walk in to a minefield. You could get a person in trouble that way.
And "in trouble" was how the SNA I spoke to last week felt after she received the reminder of her job description.
"We're all willing to do the work," she said. "We're not meant to do teachers' work, but we all help out in all kinds of ways. All of us do; sticking spellings in to copy books, making sure homework is collected. The items in the list that we're not supposed to do, sure I've spent more than a decade tapping on tables, keeping children on task. That's seen as a nothing? I've spent my life doing that."
"We're not militant people," she went on. "We could be. We could down tools and not do all the extra stuff we do and see how they managed; but we won't. I've never met an SNA who wasn't devoted their job, but there's a very warped thinking about it and it comes from the top. It's all about money and not about caring for children.
"If I was a principal, and I read this from the NCSE, I would want to write to them and say that the criteria is a lie, and it's fake. We do so much more that is not acknowledged.
"Every parent knows how much we do in the classroom, but they don't know that we're not supposed to," she said.
Last week, I heard of SNAs helping subbing teachers keep charge of 30+ newly-arrived Junior Infants whose teacher was out sick. I heard of SNAs compiling large homework plans for kids to whom they were assigned. I heard about SNAs helping Junior Infants without special needs to relax enough to use the school toilets.
I heard about SNAs opening lunch boxes and finding stationery and hanging up coats of kids who had no special needs beyond that they no longer had their mammy and their teacher was overstretched.
Sure all of our kids have special needs, in their own ways. And, all of the teachers in the too large classes have special needs too. And the SNAs assist them all.
But we pretend it's not happening, and send circulars to warn that it shouldn't be happening, for fear that if we admit it, all will be lost. That they might be lost. And we'd all be lost without them.