Look for opportunities to upskill
Support staff often get the thin edge of the training wedge. Take the initiative; don’t wait to be invited. Seek out courses that will help you do your work and ask to be released to attend them. They can include a great variety of topics – anything from specialist computer courses through to first aid.
You’ll usually know when the school is setting its budgets for the next financial year. Make sure some funds are set aside for your training and for a reliever to take over your work (if that’s necessary.) If you live in a remote location, remember to include travel and accommodation.
Not enough money?
If there’s any hesitation from your boss about providing you with training, you might have to prepare a simple business case.
- For instance, maybe there’s a specialist computer programme you use, and which you’re not highly skilled with.
- At present it takes you ‘x’ amount of time to do the relevant tasks.
- Suppose, with training, you could save 30 minutes a week.
- If you’re paid say $20 per hour (some administrators will say ‘I wish!’), that’s a saving of $10 per week.
- Over a 45-week year that equals $450.
- There’s also the unseen cost to the school of the ‘lost opportunity’ price tag of other tasks you don’t have time to do right now.
- If you have a higher skill set you’ll be able to train and advise future staff.
Further career opportunities
Some support staff, when asked to take on new tasks, say, ‘I can’t do …’ (Excel, for instance). Instead, think ahead. If you find yourself left too far behind in skills upgrades you might find your job restructured and yourself with less hours.
Perhaps you’d like a new challenge. For instance, you have an interest in working with special needs children and you’ve just seen a training programme advertised. You also know that there’s a skills short fall in your school in this area. Be proactive; ask to be sent on the course.
For the foreseeable future you might be very happy working in a school, even though it isn’t brilliantly paid. Almost certainly you would earn more in a commercial environment, but typically it suits either geographically or because you’ve got school-age children. However, the one sure thing in life is that nothing stays the same. And when that day comes, a well-skilled school support person will be snapped up by future employers.
Always think long-term
Many people (myself included) developed skills during their time working in schools and colleges that have since led to very exciting and well-paid work, and not just in education. Top support staff are incredibly talented multi-taskers, great project managers, and able to turn their hand to most things.
Job descriptions save grief
Whenever a group of school secretaries share ‘best practice’ ideas in my School Administrator programmes, and someone says, ‘Get your job description reviewed annually’ heads go up. Typically up to half the people say, ‘What job description?’
Some folk are afraid of the possible restrictiveness of job descriptions, but in fact they provide clarity and focus. They’re also a tool to help with pay, work hours, and general fair employment practices. If you’ve got clear guidelines as to who you’re working for and what work you’re responsible for it gives you confidence to challenge unfair or inappropriate requests.
Pamela Hill, Northern Regional Secretary for NZEI (who support secondary and primary support staff), suggests that if you don’t have a job description you should write your own.
Draft up what you believe you should be doing and who you consider you’re responsible to (e.g. is it the business manager, the office manager, the principal?). List the tasks and hours then discuss it with the person to whom you report. Does it match their expectations or what you were originally employed to do? Have extra jobs sneaked in, perhaps for other staff members, which maybe your boss doesn’t even know about? While they may ask for some changes to your draft, it is much easier for you both if you start the process. It’s hard for someone else to know every detail of your daily work – something’s bound to be overlooked.
Once the new job description has been agreed, you have a concrete basis from which to negotiate if the position needs re-grading to reflect broader responsibilities.
Hours are reviewed annually; this is a perfect opportunity to also review your grading and your job description for the coming year. If the workload has changed over the year now’s the time to discuss the need for more help or more hours. Or maybe the task shouldn’t have landed on your plate at all? This is also a good time to talk about further training, and check that your professional needs are being included in the budget.
You could also use this opportunity as a performance review – most schools do annual appraisals with their teachers but forget to run regular review processes with their support staff. Again, if the boss forgets or doesn’t know to do it, be proactive. (If you’re not sure how to do this, contact your union.)