It’s a long way from Kenya to a primary school in the East Midlands, but for teaching assistant Hasmita Dhamelia it’s a journey that has reaped benefits for her and many around her.
In a traditional terrace house in Leicester, her front room has a shrine to gods and figures from Hindu, Christian and Buddhist religious traditions, together with shelves of books that range from Oliver Twist through The Colour Purple to a collection of Italian recipes.
And for our chat, Somali-style coffee with honey and ginger accompanies Jaffa Cakes. It’s all evidence of how in Hasmita’s life cultures cross-pollinate and influence each other.
Born in Mombasa, she moved to the UK when she was 19. When her children were old enough, she found work as a dinner lady at the nearby school. Apart from anything else, she says, it meant that she could keep an eye on her youngest at lunchtime.
On course with the union
Hasmita says that the school’s management slowly found out that she could speak English and was good with children. “So they gave me a few hours of teaching assistant work each day. From there, I became a full-time TA.”
It took her a while to join UNISON. The turning point was when Sonia, a fellow teaching assistant who was a member, talked to her about the union and, says Hasmita, “I fully understood that it’s best to become a union member.”
After she joined, Hasmita began to browse the courses that were available and found some that appealed. “I started with small courses,” she recalls. “I joined one, with a friend, which was all about gaining your confidence.”
And it quickly provided dividends. At work, she discovered lots of members who didn’t speak very good English and needed help – asking Hasmita to speak up for them. Then Sonia suggested that they become UNISON reps. “It’s a big step and she said, ‘Let’s do it together.’ And we did.
“I am like a shadow with her,” says Hasmita of the year or so that has passed since. “We help each other and liaise with each other.
“We go and talk to all the other members and see if there’s anything they need or anything else they’d like to know. We advise them.”
Both have completed the reps’ course, which she says has further boosted her confidence in the role.
Having time to listen
Hasmita has done other UNISON courses too, including one that helps people to manage difficult behaviour in others. And this training has actually informed her work as a teaching assistant.
“I can look at a troubled child with ease now. I don’t panic, I don’t start doing things that I shouldn’t be doing,” she explains.
She gives an example of a child with autism who would get angry and run around, with people assuming that this was ‘naughtiness’. But he was not naughty, she says.
“Autistic children don’t like being told too many things, quickly. He’s really a good boy and just needs someone to understand and listen to him and calm him down.”
Of course, that doesn’t benefit just the one child, but his classmates too, who used to feel insecure around him.
When asked if this is an illustration of what teaching assistants bring to a school, Hasmita laughs ruefully. “Definitely. I think teaching assistants have the time to listen to those children, to understand them. Children really do need listening to.”
Having stood in for teachers on occasion, she says they “don’t have the time” for such listening. Having teaching assistants helps to create a more holistic environment.
Stars In Our Schools
Hasmita has not just undertaken UNISON training. She’s also gained a degree that would, with a year’s teacher training, enable her to become a teacher. But she’s happy in her present role.
“It’s so satisfying to be able to explain to the child, to be with the child, to understand the child, because I was once a child and I never had anyone to talk to,” she says.
“In my day, we didn’t have teaching assistants. And besides, I was brought up in Africa and there was only one teacher and about 30 or 40 children in a classroom.”
As the autumn term approaches, she’s contemplating this year’s Stars in Our Schools, the day in late November dedicated to celebrating the work of school support staff.
Since many of her fellow branch members work primarily as dinner ladies at lunch time, it can be difficult to get together when they only have 15 minutes to spare.
So she’s thinking about organising an outing to a restaurant – something to bring people together, allow them the chance to chat properly and to “celebrate being UNISON members.”
Given that UNISON education has been so important for her, Hasmita says that she would recommend any other members to do the courses.
And what about becoming a rep? “Go ahead,” she urges. “I work around lots of women who have not gained that confidence yet. And, to help them out, it’s really advisable to become a rep.”
The school year is getting under way – and there is no shortage of opportunities for UNISON members to start learning again too.
Photographs: Jon Super