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For the last five years, Diane Meaney has worked as a substitute teacher, a hall monitor and a teacher's aide. In September, she started as a teacher assistant at West Seneca East Senior High School.

Ms. Meaney has worked in just about every classroom position except the one she really wants -- that of a full-fledged teacher.

She is among a large and growing number of certified teachers unable to land teaching jobs in the tight local job market. So they work instead as classroom assistants with often meager paychecks and more restricted duties.

They settle for the opportunity to work with students, hold steady jobs with health-care and retirement benefits and gain valuable experience as they seek teaching positions.

"This is the best opportunity right now," said Carly Miller, a 1995 Buffalo State College graduate, who supervises study halls and detention rooms as a teacher's aide at West Seneca East. "At least you're in the school getting to know people, getting your foot in the door."

West Seneca East has eight teacher assistants and
teacher's aides; all but one is a certified teacher. The assistants, who have instructional responsibilities, make about $19,000 a year; the aides less than $10,000.

"We're hiring teacher's aides we would gladly hire as teachers," Superintendent Richard J. Sagar acknowledged.

Other local districts, many with hundreds of applicants for each available teaching position, do the same. For example:

Amherst Central Schools have more than 80 teacher's aides and monitors -- who make from $6.33 to $10.21 an hour -- and most are certified teachers, said Mark Whyle, director of administrative services.

Orchard Park hired six certified teachers for aide positions, selecting them over some candidates with no college education.

"That's an easy choice," said Charles Stoddart, district superintendent. "You take the person with the breadth and depth of experience."

Although the Williamsville Central Schools encourage certified teachers to seek experience as $55-a-day substitutes, some successfully seek jobs as aides, said Louis J. Nanni, assistant superintendent for personnel.

While that is part of a national trend, it is especially pronounced in the Buffalo area.

That's because of the preponderance of local teacher training programs and because public school enrollment growth here is generally not dramatic enough to create a significant number of new teaching positions each year.

Ms. Meaney's husband this year landed a teaching job in West Seneca, so she continues to plug away as a teacher assistant while also working part time as a toll collector.

"I see that I'm slowly climbing the ladder here," Ms. Meaney said. "I love just being with the kids and being in the school system."

Sagar said five or six former aides or assistants -- including Ms. Meaney's husband -- have worked their way into teaching jobs.

"It doesn't give you the job, but it gives you a better chance at the job," he said. "It's a good opportunity."

Prospective teachers also are encouraged by projections that widespread retirements will jar loose the job market.

"This can be a little discouraging, but I see some light at the end of the tunnel," said Chris Cerrone, a West Seneca teacher assistant who gained his certification three years ago.

At the same time, qualified aides and assistants are urged to pursue teaching positions in other districts or areas of the country, and not to become typecast in their current jobs.

"These are just temporary positions for them," said Renee Goshin, West Seneca East principal. "They're in transition until they find the jobs they're looking for."

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