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Educational Assistants

Written on May 16th, 2016

It has been said that a well-run school can function for a day or so without the principal, but if the educational assistant does not show up in a classroom for work, the day can go off the rails very quickly.

An educational assistant (EA) is a paraeducator who supports the learning of students within the context of the school’s Special Education program. EAs play a very important role in the academic success of those students within the school that have been identified as “at-risk” for academic difficulties due to a learning disability or learning deficiency.

“We’re here to make a difference,” shares Melissa Glockner, an educational assistant at Halton Hills Christian School (HHCS) in Georgetown. “We want to stop school from being the place where a child says, ‘I can’t do it!’, or ‘It’s too hard!’, or even ‘I’m too different from everyone else!’ Our goal is to give children confidence and to help them find success.”

Andrea Kamming, another EA at HHCS, shares this passion. “We have the best job ever! We get to be the front seat passengers and navigators for some of the most special ‘drivers’. It can sometimes be the most overwhelming ride—obstacles, bumps, wrong turns, and rough roads. But when we get there … oh, do we celebrate.”

“It might have been only a few feet down the road,” she adds, “but it doesn’t matter, because we moved forward!”

EAs play a supportive role for students, but they also come alongside teachers in a way that gives support and encouragement to provide for the needs of students within the classrooms.

“Not only are we making a difference in student lives,” says Pauline Naftel, Learning Resource teacher and VP of Curriculum at Ottawa Christian School (OCS), “we are also supporting teachers to differentiate and meet student needs.”

In the last decade, OACS schools have begun to recognize the vital role of the educational assistant within their instructional teams, in order to fulfill their vision to support every student that enters the building each morning.

Halton Hills principal Marianne VanGoor shares that one of the Core Values held by their school community is “Every Student Matters”, and that having EAs in the school helps them to fulfill this value.

“We couldn’t offer the education we do without them,” she explains. “Without the support of our paraeducators, we would not have been able to accommodate some of the students that have found a safe and happy ‘home’ at our school.”

Ken VanMinnen, principal of Strathroy Community Christian School (SCCS), couldn’t agree more. “Our number one goal is to make it as likely as possible for each student to have a ‘successful day’. This means something different for each student, but can be especially challenging for students with learning or social struggles.”

“It is fair to say that without [our EAs], there would be at least twenty students ‘not welcome’ at SCCS,” continued Mr. VanMinnen. “And that,” he emphasized, “is something we cannot accept as Christian leaders and educators.”

Not only are EAs essential for schools to be able to accommodate all students regardless of their difficulties, but their work also enables the students to identify and use their abilities outside of the classroom.

“Part of the mission and vision at Trinity Christian School (TCS) in Burlington is to prepare students as image-bearers of God for meaningful participation in society,” says vice-principal and Learning Resource teacher Christy Mack. “This also means finding the strengths of each student and bringing them into a place where they can use their gifts to glorify God in our society. An EA helps each child meet their potential and feel successful in their learning.”

“EAs have a great opportunity to build close relationships with the children they work with,” adds Ms. VanGoor. “This gives them the chance to nurture and assist with implementing life skills, to ensure that they can be fully involved in the life within and outside of the school, and can also have a profound spiritual influence on them.”

The role of an EA is not an easy one. Mr. VanMinnen believes it takes a team of paraeducators in a school to be able to fulfill the commitment to providing education for every student in a Christian school. “It seems our culture is preaching that we should only take in students who are easy to teach, who learn and grow at predetermined rates, and who won’t cause us much grief throughout the year.”

“However,” he says, “our main focus is on students as God’s children, and providing a place for them to learn and grow. We’ve decided that this is more important than our desire to teach within the path of least resistance.”

Describing what an EA does in the classroom every day cannot be confined to a sentence or two. Annette Stephenson, an educational assistant and member of the Bridge (learning resource) team at SCCS, spent some time summarizing the work that EAs do with students each day:

  • advocating for students;
  • anticipating student needs;
  • supporting teaching staff by assisting students who need extra help;
  • developing strategies for students to find success in their work at whatever level they can;
  • developing trust with students who find it difficult to allow others to help them;
  • being cheerleaders, motivators, encouragers and listeners;
  • creating safe places for students to learn;
  • brainstorming ideas with students to create paths of success;
  • providing extra practice opportunities to prepare for tests.

The list is endless.

“EAs are so versatile,” adds Ms. Mack. “Often they are simply a child’s extra conscience, necessary to encourage them to stay attentive and on the proper learning path throughout the day. Other times they are a firm but friendly guide that a student may need to make good decisions within the classroom.”

The role of the EA has changed significantly in the last decade. “It used to be that the EA was just an extra pair of hands, doing clerical work or marking routine assignments,” describes Ms. VanGoor. “Now, they are involved in the planning and delivering of programs to students under the direction of our resource teacher.”

Melissa Glockner recalls things being very different when she was a student. “Twenty-five or thirty years ago, we didn’t have any [EA’s]! Very few kids were offered resource help of any kind—they were just left in the mainstream and forced to learn the ‘typical way’. It’s so different now!”

Pauline Naftel relates that serving students with learning needs has become less reactive and more proactive in the last ten years. “There is less of a focus on getting through the curriculum, and instead teachers are providing more differentiated learning opportunities and more individual support to increase a student’s skills and strategies for learning.”

Ms. Stephenson agrees that the approaches to helping students have changed significantly. EAs are partnering with students to find ways to offer the best paths to success rather than dictating what needs to happen. “As much as possible, we brainstorm with our students,” says Ms. Stephenson. “We let them have a say in how their day looks and how we can best support them.”

Not only are EAs creating partnerships with students, but they are also partnering with the teachers in classrooms—coming alongside them to help create the best learning environments possible for both.

“The teacher-EA roles are complementary,” says Ms. VanGoor. “One enhances the other. Teachers love having an EA to assist them with students in the classroom because they know that more children will get the individual attention needed. EAs also provide different perspectives to the teachers and can give unique feedback concerning students.”

“I can speak to the great sense of partnership that I have felt between myself as an EA and each teacher I have worked with,” shares Melissa Cecile, an EA at SCCS. “Teachers often make it clear to their students that an EA is ‘as much of a teacher as they are’,” she relates. “This gives me the confidence to do my job properly and not be afraid to make decisions in the classroom to help my students.”

The stories of the impact that EAs have in classrooms are equal to the amount of students they are helping on a daily basis. “We have so many stories we could share about their impact,” says Ms. VanGoor. “We have had students with mild intellectual disabilities learning to read, cook, and tell time. We have students with autism developing the skills needed in order to function in a classroom. Students with significant behaviour challenges have been able to remain at our school because of the direct intervention and support of our paraeducators.”

This impact is not lost on the students who are on the receiving end of the support they receive from EAs. One student from Ottawa Christian School expressed how thankful she is that her EA supports her need to leave the classroom at times when things become overwhelming for her. “We go to the learning support room, and I like this room because there are lots of things to do. I come when I need quiet and sometimes I need to talk, move around, or just chill.”

Whether they are working to assess student needs, focusing on behaviours and executive functioning skills, facilitating communication strategies, developing IEPs, providing classroom support, or one of the many other ways that EAs facilitate student learning, the one thing that remains consistent among all EAs is the passion they exude in their work and the love they have for students.

“I love the children and the opportunities that EAs have to get to know kids with varying needs on a personal level,” shares Ms. Naftel. “We never know what will ‘land on our plates’ each day, but we are thankful that there is a place for us to help students, and confident that God will give us the grace to meet these challenges every day.”