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Engagement in professional learning communities

The analysis of discourses outlined in the previous section highlights the features of school contexts that operate to socialise TAs into ‘passive’ positions. The power implications created by the hierarchical structure of schools and TAs’ working conditions firmly situate this community group within a discourse of support where they are dependent on the confirmation of others to take action. These perceptions manifested in their attitudes towards engaging with the researcher during the interviews. Initially, many TAs showed visible signs of discomfort in the one- on-one situation and expressed fears of providing the ‘right’ response to questions, especially those designed to elicit their knowledge about reading:

Um, do you mean like reading should be... it’s not a chore to be reading? Is that what you mean? Um, oh dear... I don’t find reading fun for me. But I don’t know if that’s what you mean. Um,... words? Saying words... Oh dear... (Terry)

Reading is saying the words on the page. Is that what you want? (Bethany)

... reading... Hmm, I guess it’s the art of storytelling... and you’re sort of trying to engage the listener into it. Yeah. Is that right? (Denise)

These findings carry important implications for engagement and partnership-building. Through their voluntary participation in this project, TAs brought commitment to their roles as members of a professional learning community with the shared aim of improving the outcomes of struggling older readers. However, it became obvious from the initial interviews that increasing TAs’ adaptive capacity required more than their willingness to become passive recipients of training. To implement the intervention, TAs needed to optimise their professional learning experiences to become empowered ‘actors’ (Higgins & Gulliford, 2014, p. 122) within a new community discourse. Identifying ways of improving TAs’ recognition of their own knowledge and empowering them to contribute to a shared process of community learning became a fundamental first step in engaging with this community group.

While some TAs categorised their conversations with teachers as a helpful form of professional learning, they admitted that the pace and routine of the school day provided them with few opportunities for these discussions. Many participants claimed that they rarely experienced opportunities to participate as active members in professional learning communities in schools. In effect, school settings become a ‘site of struggle’ (Tucker, 2009, p. 298) for these TAs when their role expectations and positioning as subordinate members of the organisational culture conflict with their desire to be influential in their work:

. .. we’re there, we’re in the school system, but it’s like we’re just behind the scenes type people... some of us have been here so long that they [the teachers] get very lackadaisical about us advancing. (Margaret)

 
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