This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Non-teaching assistants (NTAs) are a key ingredient in maintaining order in schools – providing an adult monitor and a sense of safety in schools’ hallways, lunchrooms, and front entrances.
The School District defines the role of NTAs in schools as "maintaining discipline, surveillance, and control over the non-instructional activities of students."
Often, this definition translates into confrontational relationships between NTAs and students; NTAs enforce the rules that students challenge.
But the relationships between NTAs and students are not necessarily hostile. The Notebook interviewed three NTAs at comprehensive high schools who are highly regarded for their roles as links between the community, students, and schools. These NTAs demonstrate that the most positive school climate can result when students see adults in charge who respect and advocate for them.
We interviewed Duane Johnson (Olney High School), Odessa Jones (Bartram High School), and Victor Staton (Edison High School). Here are excerpts from the interviews, conducted by Amy Rhodes in November.
Notebook: How long have you been an NTA in the District and at your school? And why did you decide to become an NTA?
Johnson: I’ve been an NTA for 23 years. I’ve been at Olney High School for almost 17 years.
My children were in school, and I had been a block captain and a committeewoman in my community. And I saw that I really worked good with groups of kids. And someone said, "Why, you probably would be real good with the kids in school. Why don’t you go and apply?" And I did. I passed the test and I started right away.
Staton: I’ve been an NTA for 16 years. Five substituting, 11 appointed. I’ve been here [at Edison] for 11 or 12 years.
[I became an NTA], really, not by choice. When I got out of school, I was in trouble. My mom was a teacher, now retired. She said, "You’re going down to the School District and you’re going to get a job. You’re not going to be living here under my roof and don’t have a job. You’re not going to be in the streets." So at 19, I went down there, and I’ve been here ever since. I don’t have regrets.
Jones: I have been an NTA at Bartram for two and a half years. I had heard so much about the public schools and about how the children had a behavior problem and what have you. I came from a Christian school and I wanted to reach out to the public schools to see could I help make a difference in developing children, as to how to prepare them for life and how they can be able to relate to others without a lot of anger.
Notebook: How would you describe your role in the school as an NTA?
Johnson: Well, as far as the students go, I think they really do see me as someone that they can really relate to. Each new group that comes in, [I hear], "Oh, you’re Mama J. My sister said I could get a token from you if I ever needed one."
Or they’ll come up and say, "My brother said [to] look out for you, grandma. He said that you was a nice lady."
I try to go around to each class [of] the new ninth graders. And I ask the teacher if I can come in and introduce myself. I tell them how I’ve been [at Olney] a length of time and that I am a grandmother, and you are welcome to call me Grandmom, or you can call me Miss Johnson.
And I also tell them that I expect them to graduate from Olney.
I tell them that if they have any problems that they think they can’t solve to be sure to come and tell me. If you’re hungry, if you need a token, if somebody wants to start a fight, if somebody around here is setting a fire, if somebody around here is doing something that’s going to hurt all of us, I want you to come to me and tell me. And no one, no one will know who has divulged this. And fortunately, kids come and tell me.
I take soap to school and toothpaste and deodorant. Then I have pencils, and paper. I have you name it, sanitary napkins. I have Band-Aids. I have a little store. It’s something I want to do.
I’ve helped children get jobs. Just as recently as last week, I got a boy a job at the Pizza Hut. And bought him a pack of tokens so he could get there the first week. I told him when he gets paid, though, he’s going to pay me back my tokens.
I’ve gone to prison with one girl. Her mother had committed murder. And she was incarcerated up in Muncie, which is upstate Pennsylvania. And this girl would cry every day until finally I got out of her what it was. She said, "Miss Johnson, I haven’t seen my mother in four years."
And I made up my mind. I got two tickets for the Greyhound. Just thinking about it I could cry. She took a picture with her mother. She held her mother the whole time. And she was like a different child after she had gotten to see her mother.
I like the fact that the teachers know that I’m there to support them because often when you have 30 kids in a classroom you can’t just jump in and stop the ruckus or take time to deal with personal issues like molestation or pregnancy or drugs that are rampant in our communities. [Teachers] don’t always have time to deal with those social issues.
Jones: [I try] to let [the students] know that [NTAs] are not the enemy. We care and we’re there to protect them. We’re there to counsel. We’re there to help them if they don’t know how to find their way, to direct them.
And I try to break it down through a communication – maybe a hug, maybe a touch, even someone to tell them that, "You are the best. Don’t care what nobody says. You are the best." They respond to love.
Staton: My role is just keeping it real with the kids, just answering their questions directly, giving it to them straight, as it is. And once they find out that you’re a real type of person, there’s minuses and pluses with that.
You’re going to hear a whole lot of other stories. And sometimes you say, I’ve got to report this to somebody. And the kids, they [might] be mad at you for a moment, but then they can understand. And it’s basically almost like another parent. You’re a parent.
A typical day at Edison, it’s like having a bunch of kids of your own. I’m everywhere – lunchroom, hallway. I’ve been here long enough to know [that] a lot of kids, all they want is attention. I’ve got 3,500 kids. I don’t have too many hectic days because I think positive even when it’s negative.
Notebook: Students often seem to see NTAs as the people who are around just to give students a hard time. How do you avoid getting into conflicts with students while still doing your job?
Staton: Even though they’re kids, I treat people how I want to be treated. And that’s all in a nutshell. You treat people the way you want to be treated. But you have to look at them as kids. Sometimes as adults we’re quick to forget that we were kids. The games that they play, we played. They’re just a different generation.
So, basically, I treat kids the way I want to be treated. And that’s been working for almost 16 years.
Johnson: I always felt that it was unwise to be confrontational. So, I try another approach. I try the motherly approach. So, as opposed to saying, "Take your hat off, son," I’m more inclined to say something like, "I know your mom doesn’t know you have that on in school."
You can’t be hostile with kids that are used to hostility. All you do is make the situation worse. I can’t intimidate you if you’re accustomed to intimidation.
My approach is non-threatening: "I’m here to help you. I’m here to be your friend, your grandmom. I want you to come to me. I want you to tell me because I want you to be safe. I want you to be successful. I want for you the very things that I wanted for my children." So, it works if you believe it and if the kids pick up. They can tell if you really mean it.