I’ve had the opportunity to work with many experienced and skilled educational assistants (EA) in my teaching career. As an educator, I see the EAs as an integral part of our education system as they help our children and youth with emotional, mental, and physical disabilities achieve their full potential. I always love connecting with this eager group of educators in my class, as I learn so much through their passion and expertise.
As a mother, I’ve also learned to be grateful for the EAs who work with my daughter who has special needs. When Bella first started public school, one of the biggest challenges was learning to trust the EAs as they would be the person(s) who would not only be caring for Bella’s physical well being, their support would also ensure Bella’s confidence, happiness, and academic achievement at school.
I’ve learned that EAs are the front line to those students who might otherwise not even be granted admission to an educational facility, if not for considerable attention. I don’t know if the public truly understands and appreciates the role of the EA in schools today. These are not glorified babysitters there to pacify the child to simply get through the day, nor are the EAs the on-site security system to guard the almost-violent student and maintain the safety for others.
For this blog post, I was inspired to not only bring awareness to the valuable role of EAs in our educational system, but to also showcase an educator (and also a good friend of mine) who has gone above and beyond her role as an EA.
Meet Ms. Rajkumar, she is the EA that could!
A stellar educator that not only works her ass off, but also demonstrates an optimistic approach to any challenge a student may have. I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Jen, as she was an integral part of Bella’s early years in education.
Jen recently received the Council of Exceptional Children (CEC) President’s Award To A Paraprofessional. Last week she attended the 2018 Ontario CEC ceremony to receive this prestigious award. This award is given to a paraprofessional who is working as a teaching assistant, educational assistant, attendant or in a similar role, employed to assist or support certified staff in the education of individuals with exceptionalities. This award also recognizes the professional excellence and advocacy that this individual demonstrates.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Can you tell us about your career working with children and youth, and how you came into the field of education?
JEN: When I was finishing high school, I applied to a child and youth worker (CYW) program - and was denied acceptance. I went into the field of social service worker (SSW) instead. After I graduated, I really didn’t have any idea as to what I wanted to do with my life. SSW is open to many different paths, and I didn’t know which one I wanted to try going down. So I decided to be a nanny for a year. That year turned into nearly 16 years! I worked for a family that was amazing, I can’t say enough wonderful things about them. I never wanted to leave and I don’t think they ever wanted me to leave. As the kids all got older (my own two that came with me daily and lived and played as though they were part of the family) I decided that it was time to reinvent myself. I didn’t want to join a new family since I was sure that I would never find a new family as caring and loving as that one I had been with for all those years. So, I signed up for night school, in the CYW program. I had always known that I wanted to work with kids that had special needs and varying challenges. I found mainstream rule following kids so boring. I was and still am, intrigued by kids who stretch the boundaries and keep you guessing. After almost 4 years juggling night school, a family and a full time nannying job, I had earned a CYW diploma. Not having written a resume in 16 years, it was time to put myself out there. I came across the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) website that said they were hiring, so I took my chances. It was going to be a trial of writing a resume and perhaps practicing the interview, but I knew that I’d never get hired. I was wrong.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: As an educator, I know that the roles and responsibilities of an EA includes: providing valuable insight on the students’ behaviour, communication skills, likes and dislikes, medical issues and other supports such as adaptation and/or modifications. However as a parent of a child with special needs, I know that your role goes beyond this list. Can you share how your role as an EA supports the students and their families at school and at home? How does your support of the students extend beyond the school setting and environment?
JEN: As you said, the roles of an EA go on and on. I’ve never read the fine print of my employment contract, but I’m pretty sure that it says - “and all other duties as assigned”. We do a lot in our day and more when the day is done. I am always thinking about different strategies to support the students that I work with. I am constantly on pinterest and doing google searches. I visit the dollar store almost weekly to get supplies that I need to try out a strategy/activity. I get to know the student beyond what a teacher can tell me. Beyond what I can read in an Ontario Student Record (OSR). Beyond what similar students have presented with in my past experiences. Every student is different and it is our job to learn about them. I ask if they’ve had breakfast so that I can get them a snack in hopes of saving the rest of their morning after a meltdown. I will ask what time they went to bed, maybe offering a break or a quiet space if they need to work at a slower pace than the rest of their class. I stand outside every morning on kiss and ride duty greeting students and their families. I try to make eye contact and smile to both the student and their parent, with the intention of letting them know that their child is safe and going to have a great day. At the end of the day, I’m back outside, still smiling while reminding them to have a good evening and that I will see them the next day, ready to welcome them back. I helped a student hold his things in his broken backpack while walking to his locker, I got him a new one from a bunch we had donated. When I see a student walking alone at recess, I go ask how they’re doing and see if they want to join a game. I want parents to know that when they send their children to school, they have people caring about them. I don’t necessarily worry about a child academically, I worry about them socially and emotionally. While working in a community class, we often speak directly with the families at pick up and drop off. It’s important to know what a family’s goals for their child are so that we can help achieve them. We need to work together. A parent knows their child best.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Your administration nominated you for this prestigious award. How did you feel when you found out that you have won this award?
JEN: I was floored when I found out about the award. I don’t like attention on myself. I generally like to just do my own thing and not get noticed other than a little tap on the back occasionally. I feel like I just do my job, nothing special or extra. But as I was processing my ‘win’, I realized that I am getting recognized on behalf of all hard working EAs. We need to be noticed. We are way more than taking kids with special needs to the washroom. The role of an EA isn’t to take kids for a walk when the teacher has had enough. It isn’t to hand out stickers on a token chart that the teacher or special education resource teacher (SERT) has made. We shouldn’t be sitting back feeding students snack at recess while the interdisciplinary team (IDT) is meeting with the classroom teacher to make programs or recommendations. I received this award because I go beyond all of that. I work with the teacher, the SERT and the student so that I can make a chart that works to best support the student. I take students for a walk when we feel the student needs it, not because the teacher has had enough of their screaming or non-compliance. I make sure that I speak with the IDT during their meetings because I have valuable input to add in creating plans and programs. Slowly, I am allowing myself to truly accept this recognition.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Preach.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Describe what tools and/or resources you use to perform your role successfully.
JEN: My toolbox lid is never closed. Pinterest is usually my go-to, however my colleagues are invaluable. I use Boardmaker quite a bit but mostly I use my imagination. I haven’t found a perfect set of tools to keep ahead in this field, but I have found that my mind needs to always be open to new learning.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: What are some of your goals that you hope to achieve with the students on a daily/monthly/annual basis?
JEN: Goals are all different depending on the student. A goal may be for a child to finish one worksheet by noon, or to successfully sit on the carpet for 3 minutes with the rest of the class. Perhaps the student is successful if they use their words to ask to use the washroom rather than running out on their own or having an accident in their pants. Some students that I’ve worked with had friendship goals. They would use cue cards with sentence starters that I created during lunch recess. A few years ago, I helped open a junior kindergarten autism spectrum disorder (ASD) community class. After almost a month spent taking turns bringing students back and forth to the washroom to change their diapers, we decided that if we can potty train these kids and get them out of diapers by the end of the year, year one would be a huge success. We spoke to each of their parents who were all so happy since they didn’t think their child would ever be potty trained. Together we made plans, for what we would do at school and what the parent could do at home. Diapers were gone by the winter break.
To achieve the best goal success rate, they need to be determined as a team. Often EAs are overlooked in the creation of goals, even though it is often us who are implementing them. Parents need to be consulted as well as the student, depending on their developmental age. Teachers have gone to school to learn how to implement a curriculum. EAs have most often gone to school to learn about childhood/adolescent behaviours. As a supply EA new to the board, we traveled to many many different classrooms in different schools. We gained valuable experience and knowledge, which is often overlooked. Teachers should not be determining goals without the equal input of their supportive EAs. In such cases, the goals may never be achieved because all aspects of the child and their capabilities weren’t taken into consideration.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Describe how you are able to elicit the support of your co-workers/colleagues to achieve your goals?
JEN: I have been fairly fortunate to have had support throughout my career. Like in any job, there are people who want to work and people who don’t. There are people who are highly skilled and people who make you wonder how they got hired. The best way to get help from someone, is to include them. I try to explain my plan/goal and what I need their help with. I’m open to their suggestions. No one will want to help you if you just tell them what to do.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: What are some of the programs and initiatives that you have implemented in your school and how have your admin and colleagues supported you in the implementation?
JEN: I am fortunate to have a super supportive administration. Never have I heard “no” to any idea that I’ve approached them with. My ideas are always validated and pondered (at least they make me think they are :). I feel like if I can make it happen, they’ll want me to do it. Last year after hearing about other schools staff wellness challenges, I decided to do a staff step challenge. It was a lot of extra work, but staff really enjoyed it. It brought people together in a fun and joking way. We had well over three-quarters of the staff participate including custodians and office support. Seeing the students bored at recess, I tried walking Wednesdays. We set up pylons that the students walked/ran around and received a popsicle stick at the end of each circuit. They counted them up at the end and a tally was made. I was introduced to a program called ‘The Recess Project’. The idea is to promote fun at recess and to give kids things to do during their free recess time. It’s helped reduce bad decision making at recess since it gives the students fun game choices rather than not knowing what to do with themselves. I helped created a space in our school called ‘The Eagles Den’. This space is a versatile room that is in constant use. In this space we run social skills groups, have one-on-one supportive conversations, do mindfulness, hold weekly girl talk group sessions, invite students who need a quiet setting to write a test of finish an assignment. My next initiative I hope will involve inclusion through physical education. I’d like mainstream students to experience what students who have varying challenges and special needs have to do in order to succeed. If we can teach kids that kids with special needs are just kids with special needs, everyone wins. Kids just want to play.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Describe what is the most rewarding part of your job as an EA in a school.
JEN: Sounds cheesy but seeing students smile. When I see students in the halls or yard and they ask when their day to meet with me is (to learn social skills but they think we’re just playing), I know I’m doing something good for that child. I’m rewarded when I get run into by a student who says they need need need to talk to me and when can I pull them from class to listen. My rewards come as I walk down the hall every day and get a “Hello Ms. Rajkumar!” over and over by students, many of which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of learning their names. I feel rewarded when I get invited to an IST meeting. I feel validated and reminded that I have valuable insight into the care and needs of the student. I feel like I’m a part of the team and not just expected to take them to the washroom or photocopy stuff.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Describe what the biggest challenges are in your job as an EA in a school.
JEN: There are challenges in any job. It’s challenging to work with people who don’t respect you. It’s challenging to be expected to work with people who choose not to know your name until they need you. It’s challenging to be called to support a student when the teacher could easily have done it themselves but seems too fed up and impatient to do it themselves. Its challenging not to be heard. Working with difficult students is not my biggest challenge by far, working with people who don’t respect you is. I’ve heard of teachers refer to EAs as THEIR EA. EAs don’t belong to teachers and we don’t work FOR them either. We work WITH teachers and other school staff to support students wellbeing. I’m not sure how to answer how I overcome my challenges. I may be seen as stepping on toes by some people, but I try my best to be seen as more than “just an EA”. I interrupt IDT conversations (as politely as I can) when I’m feeling left out and have information to share or contest. I let people know when I think a goal or program plan has flaws. But more than just pointing out the flaw, I try to provide input into figuring out a better idea. Perhaps educating teachers on the role of an EA would help eliminate this challenge. Often teachers who have had to start out their careers as EAs helps since it gives them insight before they go on to become classroom teachers.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: What is the most meaningful way that we as parents, educators, and/or colleagues can show our appreciation for the work that you do?
JEN: Don’t just say thank you at the end of the day. Ensure that we are an equal part of the team. Don’t listen to us give suggestions, only to do something different. Discuss the pros and cons of all suggestions so that we can plan together. Talk to us. Learn our names. Smile and nod hello as we pass each other in the hall. The best run community classes that I have found run so smoothly because there is no hierarchy. Someone new visiting the class wouldn’t recognize the teacher from the EAs. Parents should feel just as comfortable talking to an EA about their child’s morning challenges at drop off or about their fabulous day at pick up as they do to the classroom teacher, and the classroom teacher needs to encourage it.
Thank you Jen for taking the time to contribute to this blog post, and to the 'lil birdie who told me about your kick-ass award!