Teacher aides care for some of the most vulnerable kids in schools, yet 90 percent of them are paid less than the Living Wage.
It is their job to work with children who have special needs of all kinds, supporting them to make progress within the school system.
The children they assist face mental, emotional, behavioural or physical challenges. The work can be difficult and stressful – a combination of healthcare worker and teacher. It can include managing challenging behaviour on a daily basis.
Last week teacher aides took part in action to draw attention to collective agreement negotiations with the Ministry of Education, which have been stalled for months with no offer forthcoming, as well as pay equity negotiations.
The union for school support staff, NZEI Te Riu Roa, is seeking minimum pay equal to the Living Wage, $21.15 per hour. It also wants to change the pay model to give these staff more certainty. Currently teacher aides’ pay comes from sources that include funding attached to individual children. Schools top this up from operations budgets. More than 60 percent are on fixed term contracts, with no certainty of employment and no pay over the holidays.
NZEI Auckland field officer Amanda Alsweiler says 90 percent of teacher aides are paid under, or well under, the Living Wage, and a high percentage are on minimum wage, $17.70 per hour.
Last week’s action included encouraging MPs to work as teacher aides for a day, posting stories online and hosting morning teas where they talked to teachers about what’s going on.
“Often teachers don’t know a lot about teacher aides’ pay and the issues they face – for instance that they don’t get paid over the school holidays,” Amanda says.
Merinda Jeffs has been a teacher aide at Orewa North Primary for seven years. She was originally paid $15 per hour and now gets a little over minimum wage.
She says teachers at her school are very supportive. Recently they made signs displaying what teacher aides mean to them, which included “we couldn’t do it without you”, and “give our teacher aides what they deserve”.
What keeps Merinda in the job is the children. “The reward of helping these children is powerful and that’s why we stick around – it’s certainly not the pay,” she says. “There are 30 or so children in a class, so teachers don’t get one-on-one like we do. We develop a rapport with the kids and they tell us things they don’t share with anyone else.”
She says teacher aides would like to go on strike, but need the numbers to make an impact. Many are not union members, which Merinda says is mainly because they can’t afford the fees.
Amanda says the mood is increasingly angry but because many of the support workers don’t have security of employment, they are uncertain about taking action.
“They are ‘the silent army’,” she says. “They are on the education frontline, but have been quiet and put up with a lot. I think they are over it.”