This Issue About Educational Assistants is Bigger Than I Realized

February 7, 2016

My blog arising out of a workshop to two groups of Educational Assistants (EAs) last week has generated close to 19,000 hits in under 5 days. It has literally taken off across Canada and as a result I have received numerous comments, postings and emails from EAs describing their experiences consistent with my blog from one side of the country to the other. It is important to appreciate that the issues identified are not a reflection on any one school board, but a reflection of issues in education across Canada today.

In response to my blog, I  was also pointed to a CBC interview/report on the same issues from 2015 as well as to a Globe and Mail article that came out literally two days after my blog post.

All sources suggest the same issue: EAs are poorly valued; minimally resourced; provided with little to no background on the students they serve; are held responsible for attacks upon themselves by students whose violence they were not prepared for; and they serve the most challenging students in the school system as that is their role.

What does this mean not only for the EA, but for the student and the parents of all students?

Firstly, students who require the services of an EA are rarely able to advocate for themselves, so this means the student has little to no recourse to assure themselves that the service they are accessing is delivered in a way that best meets their needs.

Parents of students who utilize the services of the EA may be in the dark as to the issues affecting their son or daughter and are at risk of having their child’s situation made worse, not by the lack of will of the EA, but by the structural problems in which service is embedded.

Other students are at risk of dangerous and violent behaviour in the midst of students receiving EA services. Even if not subject to the violence directly, it means that some students may still be witness to violent events which in its own right is known to be distressing and in some cases create post traumatic stress disorder for the witness of troubling events.

Parents generally are likely unassuming and may feel that because their son or daughter is not in receipt of EA service, they have no say as to the issues in any given classroom.

What to do?

School boards, like so may other public institutions are tying to do more with less. We need to look at funding formulas and resources to better equip schools to address the needs of these vulnerable and at times dangerous students.

Parents whose students do not access the services of EAs can and should ask of their local school about the policies and training affecting students with EAs as well as policies regarding violence at school and in the classroom. These same parents can ask their own sons and daughters about the use of EAs in their classrooms and exposure to violent events. If issues or concerns surface, then the parent should take the matter to the school for discussion and resolution.

Parents of students who actually utilize the service should ask that the EA attend meetings where their child is discussed. The EA will be responsible for the implementation of any program and the EA will know best about the response to the educational plan given they are the persons working with the student.

This is not an issue just for the EA in terms of working conditions. They are not responsible for widgets. They are responsible for all of our children and at times the safety of the institution.

This is also not to blame our schools either, but to raise the consciousness of everyone concerned. When we everyday folk ask questions, raise and address concerns, then more reasonable solutions can be determined. Supporting our children through their education is in the interest of all society. These children are all society and they will join the ranks of other adults, equipped or not. The costs are even more severe when these children join the ranks of adulthood ill-equipped.

There are too many indicators to suggest that there is a problem in our education system throughout Canada. Can we really afford not to address it?

I can only hope that a researcher from a Canadian university hears the issue. I think this is worthy of academic investigation and if investigated by an academic, solutions can be advanced.

In the meantime, all parents across Canada are now forewarned.

One an individual basis, I remain available to speak with and support families as well as speak with groups, schools and school boards in an effort to improve matters at the various levels identified. I think there is much that can be done given a will do to something. In truth, some solutions are more structural and administrative and will not require more money, perhaps just a different way of doing things. Listening to the EAs directly is an easy way to learn how to improve some things.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW