Day in the life of a teacher assistant

Christine T. Nguyen—
Teacher assistant Patience Morris jokes with a firstgrade student as she works with a small group of students at Newport Elementary School Monday. (Christine T. Nguyen - North State Journal)

NEWPORT  —— Children go to school to learn, to grow, and to achieve. They depend upon their teachers to steer the path in a direction that helps them succeed. Even at the youngest age, their time in the classroom is important.

Patience Morris knows her one-on-one time with a student, no matter how big or small the task, is crucial to their development.

“Twenty little people learning to read the pages of a book and learning to write their letters. Twenty little people in a line for the library, needing help with tying shoes, carrying folders, finding belongings, understanding assignments and homework, and more,” said Morris.

Morris is a teacher assistant in a first grade classroom at Newport Elementary School in Carteret County. A Title I school, Newport Elementary has 753 students in grades Pre-K through fifth with a total of 38 classroom teachers and nine teacher assistants.

“From an instructional standpoint, kindergarteners haven’t learned the structures of school. Being a Title I, we have students coming in with an instructional gap between what they do know and what they should know. We have to use our teacher assistants as an instructional assistant. People often assume assistants just help the teacher, but they are there for the students. We chose having assistants in first grade for the same reason as in kindergarten as they are just learning to read and still adjusting to school,” said Principal Jody McClenny.

Every kindergarten classroom has an individual assistant, but first grade classes have one assistant per every two classrooms. Therefore, Morris divides her time between two classrooms of 19 students each by helping with writing and math.

“One challenge of working with two classrooms is students get my help half the time. One day I am with one teacher, and one day I am with the next. Teachers have different styles and as an assistant, I have to learn their styles and adapt,” said Morris. “All children learn at different rates. If the teacher is trying to teach, and you have one child that needs extra help, then you can take that child and step aside to give them the extra instruction they need.”

Morris has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from the University of Mount Olive. She began as a teacher assistant in 2002. Over the years, budget cuts have caused a decrease in the number of teacher assistants in schools.

“In 2001, when I started as a teacher here, we had teacher assistants in every K-3 classroom. When cuts start to happen, we lose assistants. We are fortunate to have as many as we do as we also need them to drive our buses,” said McClenny.

Morris drives one of the 11 school buses every morning and uses her free time to tutor children at Teacher’s Pet, a teaching and children’s supply store in Morehead City, three days a week. Even her summers are spent tutoring children.

“We are here because we all love the children. When children ride the bus in the morning, I am able to talk to them as they step on the bus and that begins their school day,” she said.

“Assistants are so much more than just people who hand a student a pencil. They are leaders in our classrooms and around our school. They become a teacher’s partner and together they work to impact our community,” added McClenny. “They are there to be another adult in the child’s life that can help them learn and grow socially, academically, and emotionally.”

There isn’t a typical day in Morris’ job. She arrives by 6:15 a.m. to begin her bus route and brings everyone to school by 7:30 a.m. From there, she jumps right into a classroom. Working with two classrooms she is teaching writing to one and math to the other. Assistants have their own sets of plans to help students needing individual assistance. Some days it’s reading or spelling, assisting with testing, monitoring lunches, etc. At 2:30 p.m., the time comes to load the bus and take kids home. At 4 p.m., the bus is returned to school, and she is off to tutor students.

“I’m here every day because I love what I do. I love the kids. I even love riding the school bus and talking to the kids first thing in the morning. There are so many important things in my job, we help the teacher out and want to be included,” said Morris. “Schools are a family.”