Calgary rally against education cuts on February 29. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

OPINION: Educational assistants do more than we realize

Their work matters, especially in a crisis.

This has been a rough few weeks for education in Alberta.

It's been a rough few weeks for everyone in Alberta. The entire economy is in crisis mode.

But while whole sections of our news streams are dedicated to plummeting stocks and job losses in the private sector, I worry that invaluable education workers are being cast aside as the freight train of constant news steams on ahead without them.

I teach at a public school in Calgary, and let me get this out of the way quickly: educational assistants in Alberta have one of the hardest, most stressful and least appreciated jobs I have ever witnessed.

I have seen them yelled at, spat on, shoved down onto ice, and chased with scissors by their students.

There are plenty more examples of their daily stresses. Their hours, locations and responsibilities are in constant flux.

Now they find themselves in flux yet again.

The Alberta government has tasked school boards with cutting $128 million. When the government announced the cuts last weekend, they specifically mentioned education assistants as workers to cut, along with bus drivers and maintenance staff.

But if there ever was a group of Albertans equipped with the emotional strength to face a crisis, it's educational assistants.

If there ever was a group of Albertans equipped with the emotional strength to face a crisis, it’s educational assistants.

I am worried that we—the public—seem to have been conditioned to deny the importance of their work. The work of an educational assistant is rarely placed at the forefront of what we do every day at public schools.

It seems like we are prepared to move on and accept that they will be simply hired back once schools start again. That's what we've been promised.

Those unable to imagine the purpose of an educational assistant in an online-based school program lack an understanding of how education works in 2020. Their value is obvious to those who look closely, to teachers and to students.

Educational assistants are much more than mere supervisors or assistants meant to only photocopy worksheets. This rings true especially in a system filled with ever diverse and complex learners.

For example, my teacher colleagues and I worked with educational assistants at our school to create a program that supports students whose reading skills are behind grade-level. This way, these students can get additional one-on-one reading sessions with an educational assistant.

This reading practice can continue while schools are closed. Regular reading check-ins could be done over video chat or the phone.

Educational assistants are much more than mere supervisors or assistants meant to only photocopy worksheets.

When was the last time you spoke on the phone with a 9-year old? They could really use some practice. They usually clam up and resort to one-word answers because many of them lack the communication skills to use a tool they rarely encounter in a normal week.

Some of my loudest, most outspoken students act like I’m their distant great-grandfather all of a sudden when I get them on the phone.

This is just one example of a skill that could be developed with the help of another adult working alongside me, helping to communicate with my students at home.

I’m sure there is an excellent Khan Academy video explaining why one half times one half is a quarter.

But parents, I assure you there is no resource online that will replace the connections that many of your children make with the educational assistants in Alberta’s public schools on a daily basis.

Continuing to keep them employed during this crisis would require foresight—and the understanding that the benefits of some people’s labour are more than what shows up on a province’s balance sheet.

Marc Affeld is an elementary school teacher at a public school in Calgary. He co-created a popular educational podcast but even he knows true learning happens face-to-face.

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