Educators said teaching assistants are a crucial part of the learning experience, including at Jackson Main School in Hempstead. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Janice Carter and Maira Carmona are longtime teaching assistants in the Hempstead school district, having spent decades in the classroom helping students at Jackson Main School focus and stay on track with the rest of the class.

Educators there said the two teaching assistants are a crucial part of the learning experience at the elementary school. They provide small-group or one-on-on instruction that enables the teacher to lead and guide the entire class. But staffers such as Carter and Carmona are increasingly becoming harder for school systems to hire. 

"It's like finding a needle in a haystack — it's very hard," Jackson Main Principal Richard Brown said.

As local districts have grappled with recent bus driver shortages and high demand for substitute teachers, they are also dealing with a shortfall of teaching assistants and aides. These roles are critical in the classroom, educators said, from serving as part of an educational plan for special education students to helping children who have fallen behind — especially those who struggle with learning loss because of the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic.


  • As local districts have grappled with recent bus driver shortages and high demand for substitute teachers, they also are dealing with a shortfall of teaching assistants and aides.
  • Several agencies have stepped up to help with staffing. Teaching assistants perform instructional services under direction of the teacher, while aides generally perform noninstructional services. Many teacher aides work specifically with special education students.
  • The national Bureau of Labor Statistics said there were 131,100 teaching assistants employed in New York in 2019 and 108,780 in May 2021 — a more than 17% drop.

Several agencies have stepped up to help with staffing. Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which employs about 300 assistants and 500 aides, has increased the number of job fairs in the community. Suffolk County Community College has been working with local schools to help address the shortfall. Molloy University in Rockville Centre launched free workshops to help prospective employees pass a testing requirement. The Sachem school district reached out with a recruitment tool this fall to 12,000 families in the community to let them know they are hiring.

"We often say we are able to run the classes that we do and support the students that we have because of the work of our aides and assistants," said Ryan Ruf, chief operating officer at Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

Fewer 'interested' in education

While teacher shortages have been reported nationwide, that's not the case on Long Island, said Dominick Palma, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. He said he is hearing from school officials mostly about the lack of assistants and aides.

Palma tallied available positions nearly two months into the school year on an online hiring database for educators and found 85 postings for aides on Long Island and 17 for teaching assistants. The national Bureau of Labor Statistics showed 131,100 teaching assistants employed in New York in 2019 and 108,780 in May 2021 — a more than 17% drop.

"Some of it has to do with a reduction in the number of people interested in education," said Palma, the superintendent in Merrick. "In the old days, teaching assistants and aides often came out of the community — primarily it was women who left the workforce and whose children were older and now returned … I see a lot less of that."

The state Department of Labor reported a median annual wage of $34,740 for teaching assistants on Long Island, with more than 19,000 employed.

"What I don’t think people realize that with a teaching assistant position they can make anywhere from $28,000 to $38,000 a year and often with that comes a union benefit," said Donna Ciampa, interim executive dean of the Michael J. Grant Campus at Suffolk County Community College.

"When they are members of a union, they get the medical benefits and the retirement benefits, and I am not sure they calculate that into their actual work," said Ciampa, who teaches education courses.

The college is working with local school systems, including Brentwood, to encourage community college students to consider working as assistants or aides.

Teaching assistants perform instructional services under direction of the teacher, while aides often handle noninstructional services. Many teacher aides work specifically with special education students. They do not need to be certified.

There are four levels of certification to become an assistant in the state — all requiring passing a test called the New York State Assessment of Teaching Assistant Skills. They also must successfully complete workshops that cover child abuse, school violence, bullying prevention and the Dignity for All Students Act. Moving beyond the first level as an assistant requires some college and classroom experience.

This summer, for the first time, Molloy University offered a free online test prep workshop. Another workshop was held Oct. 19 as prep for the state certification exam. They don’t have to be a Molloy student, said Louis Cino, dean of continuing education and professional studies.

It was launched “last year based on the feedback we have been getting from the districts saying that they have had a real hard time finding applicants,” he said. “It’s harder and harder for companies these days to find people who are willing to work in person … I think these jobs are becoming less and less favorable.”

Increased outreach efforts

Eastern Suffolk BOCES has increased its outreach efforts. The organization, which serves students from 51 districts, had three jobs fairs in the county last year and one earlier this month — and has succeeded in hiring from them, Ruf said. Last year, the organization adjusted salaries for aides to be more competitive.

Larry Street, 68, of Riverhead, filled out an application at the BOCES job fair in Holtsville. He's a semiretired educator and is looking to get back into the classroom.

"I have been in the field for a very long time and … I feel that I have a lot to offer," he said. 

In the Sachem district, Theresa Arne has worked as an aide for 17 years. She's assigned as a "one-to-one" aide to a first-grade special needs students at the Hiawatha Elementary School in Lake Ronkonkoma.

"It's so rewarding for me. I get to see the student every day and see his progression through the year academically and socially, too," she said. 

To find staffers such as Arne, the district sent home a Google form to about 12,000 families in the district letting them know of open positions. They got about 200 responses back, Superintendent Christopher J. Pellettieri said.

"It has been very difficult this year, more so than others, " he said. Despite the shortage, Pellettieri said classes do get coverage, even if the district has to use a substitute. "It has been difficult, but we are making it work," he said.

In Hempstead, Carmona and Carter have worked together as teaching assistants for more than two decades apiece, and both said are not yet ready to retire. They often run into former students who are doctors, lawyers or even teachers in their own district. 

"One thing I really love about being a teaching assistant is I love to help the kids learn — especially the newcomers to our country," said Carmona, who is a bilingual teaching assistant. 

Added Carter: "This job is very important and very rewarding. There are children who are behind … and now after the pandemic even more so. These are children who really need our support."

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