When she reached the age of 50, Joanne Tabarrini decided to take the plunge and launch herself into a new career as a teaching assistant.

And she found she had a lot to offer after a varied background that included working in sales, as a fitness instructor, and as a lunchtime supervisor at a mainstream primary school.

Now Joanne is a Level 2 teaching assistant at the specialist Aycliffe School and is also an official driver and trained lifeguard for class 7.

The mum-of-one says: “I did my fitness training qualification during lockdown as I find it really rewarding doing something positive for somebody else. I also knew I wanted to be around children to make a difference.

When I saw the advert for NEAS, I thought, ‘I’m getting on, why don’t I just go for it?’ So I did and I started at Aycliffe last summer.

The more life experiences you’ve had, the better it is for the job. The things you think about the least will turn out to be your most valuable asset.

Joanne supports 13 to 15-year-olds in class 7, often on a one-to-one basis, and takes them out swimming once a week as well as on trips into the local community. She also loves doing cookery lessons and exercise sessions with the pupils in the gym or outdoors.

Even though she describes herself as not particularly academic when she was younger, she is enjoying doing her Level 2 TA training and has been given the role of sensory champion in her class so she can disseminate best practice around sensory processing.

It’s the training that gave her confidence to do the job despite not having experience with autistic children when she joined. “The training and support are there at NEAS and they want you to grow and stay with them,” she says.

The staff are a tight-knit team, too, which is a great help. We’re all very different in class 7, with different strengths and weaknesses, and it just works.

She’s had a few hair-raising moments in the job, including the first time she took a minivan out on a trip to Durham and found herself driving it up the narrow cobbled street to the cathedral.

But they are far outweighed by the daily rewards of working with the children and young people. “The smiles and closeness you get make everything worthwhile,” she says. “When you realise they trust you, it’s the best part of the job.

“If you’re thinking about joining NEAS, don’t second-guess yourself, just do it. You just don’t know how helpful you’re going to be at the school until you try it.”

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