The Unsung Heroes of the School System
As I write this, I am on my prep period and lunch, a rather nice two-hour break. However, the Educational Assistants (EAs) I’m working with aren’t so lucky: yes, they get a lunch too, but they rarely seem to get a moment to relax.
EAs work closely with students identified as having special needs. These needs can be physical (e.g. mobility), learning-based (e.g. speech and language) or behavioural (anger or developmental issues), and of course they range in severity. Being an EA is a rewarding and challenging job, but, depending on the day, one adjective might overshadow the other.
My primary interaction with EAs has been in developmental education (DE) classes while working as an occasional teacher (OT). Let’s be frank: working with higher-needs kids isn’t for everyone. It takes patience, humility, and emotional strength. However, my stints in the higher-needs DE classes have been some of my most enriching, inspiring, and humbling experiences in teaching. And in each of the DE classes I’ve taught in, I see the same thing: the EAs love their students (yes, I said “love” and mean it), and regularly sacrifice their lunch hours and breaks to work with their kids.
One of the first things I’m given when I supply for a DE class is each student’s “Safety Plan”– a binder detailing the student’s diagnosed condition, his/her triggers, ways to deal with said triggers, and his/her medical requirements and emergency contact info. If this sounds more akin to language you’d associate with a hospital than a classroom, well, I agree. What’s not noted in the Safety Plan, however, is how adorable and fun some of these students can be. Some are incredibly social and affectionate – and they develop a very strong bond with their EAs.
As an occasional teacher, I rely heavily on the expertise of the EAs, and, thankfully, they never fail to make me feel at home and to maintain peace in the classroom. I am in their hands and am happy to let them direct me. Some DE students rely on consistent routines, and my presence really throws a kink into their day. It’s the EAs who smooth out any wrinkles, while I have the luxury of just helping out the best I can.
I’ve met many amazing students in DE programs: there was “David,” the boy with fetal alcohol syndrome who, I was told, played piano beautifully and would vigorously play air piano on his desk each morning along to “O Canada.” There was “Justin,” a wheelchair-bound student with severe speech issues who loved to tell jokes; and there was “Joseph,” who loved to play tennis. Joseph and I played a few times (really, just whacking the ball to each other without a net), and one incident has stuck with me.
Joseph and I had finished our game and were about to go in; however, one of his balls had rolled under the chain-link fence into the school’s garden. I opened the gate so Joseph could retrieve it, but as he walked in, the back of his T-shirt caught on the latch and ripped – badly.
Joseph said he didn’t care about his ripped shirt, but once in the classroom he became increasingly agitated and distraught, tugging on the rip, making it worse. I spoke calmly to him, telling him it would be okay. I put my hand on his shoulder, but Joseph snapped, “don’t f#@king touch me.” From there the situation escalated, with me watching the heartbreaking sight of a 15-year-old boy bursting into tears because he “wouldn’t look nice for his doctor’s appointment” later that day. Of course, the EAs took control, working to calm him down, but I felt I had failed Joseph. My negligence had ruined his day.
But the day wasn’t ruined, not really. Joseph eventually did cheer up. Our class dismissed earlier than regular classes, so at 2:00 p.m. the kids headed out. With a half-hour until the official end of our day, I read a magazine; the EAs spent their time differently. They talked about their “kids”: They shared accomplishments, funny anecdotes, and surprising behaviour; and offered each other encouragement for the next day. There was no bitterness, no expressions of fatigue, defeat, or frustration. Needless to say, I was impressed and humbled.
I don’t often utter the overused word “hero” – but here I wish to unequivocally state for the ages: EAs are heroes, at least to me. I am eternally grateful for their presence and wisdom and wish to thank them for the guidance and patience they bring to their jobs every single day.
First published in Education Canada, March 2019