What is an EA?

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For those of you who are not in the know of the world of Nova Scotia, right now the province is experiencing some academic turmoil and unrest. You see, after a period of bargaining with the provincial government for better working conditions, more support in schools and more power to teachers to teach, a work-to-rule strike was to be enacted for tomorrow (Monday). This means that teachers would only have to work within the means of their job; none of the extras that this profession is so famously known for doing for their students. Work-to-rule means that the safety of students is still on the forefront, though the excessive hours or duties would not happen. After a series of protests and even a walk-out from High School students in support of their teachers the government announced yesterday that they would be shutting down all public schools for the safety of children. This means that, if teachers did only what they were supposed to do in the first place, students would be unsafe. Equally, other supports could not be trusted to keep students safe.

I am that other support. I am an EPA, a 22-year old EPA and while I think I can safely say that going around as a sub from school-to-school I am definitely one of the youngest by at least a decade. You know what? Nobody cares, if I can do the job I’m welcomed with open arms. You see my long-term goal is to be a teacher and ever since making that decision I decided that any job I took I wanted it to better develop me as someone who will be influencing youth. I want to experience the classroom from all angles before I lead one. In my short time I can honestly tell you that I have discovered more angles than the ones I thought existed and everything that is happening now is upsetting me more than I thought it could.

You see, tomorrow morning I will be going into work. I will be going to school along with my coworkers, EPA’s, teachers, secretaries, etc. There will not be any kids. As much as I joke that weekends are awesome and Fridays are a long time coming I can honestly say I want to do my job…I want to be working with my kids. I had Christmas art all ready to go for the Learning Centre kids and they love doing it every day. I see about 15 kids in and out of the Learning Centre, the youngest from Grade Primary all the way to Grade 5. Their academic level isn’t just reserved for the grade they’re in either. In 1 hour I get to make it interesting. We were going to do, “If Santa was stuck on my chimney I would…”. The next day we were planning on doing more Christmas cards for the nursing home-an idea the kids brought  up all by themselves. On the outside, standing in the cafeteria looking after my charges makes my brain rattle but secretly I love being able to interact with the kids in a more laid back setting. Every Tuesday some older girls who are no longer at the school come back and visit at the end of the day. I love that they come to visit. Also on Tuesdays we have Brownies, I am also a volunteer leader and many of the kids who go there go to the school too.  I’m racking my brain because our Random Acts of Kindness Secret Santa challenge was dependent on them being in school to deliver gifts to each other. I have 2 in my car that I need to sneak into classrooms. So I am also trying to figure that one out. On Thursdays I get to go to a different class to help out because the classes I’m normally with has specials that morning. This is the only time I can think of where I can help that class even though the needs are just as important as others. I know other EPA’s do the same; when they can, they help out wherever they can. Fridays are a special day because we go outside at the end of the day with the Learning Centre kids. I play tag with them or we sit on the swings and talk big life goals. At the end of every day I ask them, “What did you learn today?” and I always reiterate “I don’t want to know what you did, I want to know what you learned.” It’s a way to end the day and that gives it closure. We walk them down to the bus at the end of every day and we stand there with them until a duty teacher comes even though we are done work at 3PM. So it could be 3:05 or 3:15 but don’t think we just up and leave when our clock is done.

Now, let’s talk about the kids. I’m lucky to have started working with kids young in really stressful, high-strung environments to more laid back ones. Every time I think I have hit the jackpot with awesome kids another batch continues to surprise me. I love these kids and I know my coworkers do too. Speaking from personal experience, I have been punched, sworn at, kicked, spat on and should really use a FitBit for the number of times a kid is a runner. Some kids don’t care that I’m 5’1 and not the strongest…if they feel like they need to they can hurt you. That’s the physical side of the job but let’s talk emotional. Part of the reasoning behind volunteering for Girl Guides or working at their summer camp is that I want to know who they are as people before they are students.  You know what? Some of that stuff is scary. It’s scary enough that I have thought very deeply about taking kids home or searching, “How old do I have to be to be a foster parent?” on Google. My fellow coworkers have brought costumes in for kids because they know it won’t happen if they don’t. I’ve also seen them bring in treats or do their hair for Crazy Hair Day. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so stressed about this Random Acts of Kindness thing…I know that it might be the most exciting thing a kid experiences this year. You simply cannot tell a teacher or an EPA or anybody who works in school to “block it out”, I think in order for you to be effective you really can’t. It’s the price you pay for excellence.

Okay, now enough of the daily duties…I want to address what I’ve read so many times in articles about this whole issue. I am not an EA…I am an EPA. The “P” in that name is very important. It stands for “Program”. This means that I should be working with one or two kids who are on an IPP or some sort of behavioural program. More often than not, we are working with more than that because the needs of the classroom far exceed the resources available. I am not an Educational Assistant, which would imply I can work with everybody, even though I do. Often times it is by choice that we do because we recognize that between teachers and few EPAs, the class can be crazy. Technically we’re there to ensure that nothing goes awry but in the short span that I’ve been doing this we learn how to teach too. We take groups of kids into the halls to help them catch up on work or help them better understand material. When there is a spare moment we will run down and cut some stuff out or go to other classes. I am the worst at finding an outfit for the day because if I am dressing for the job, I should be wearing full-out exercise gear every day. In a situation where the government seems to understand what we do I was shocked to find out that not only was our moral standards questioned (supposedly we couldn’t be trusted to keep kids safe while WTR was in effect), the very professional name we’ve been given isn’t even correct. At 22, I am so lucky that my coworkers and those school staff who oversee my job see my abilities and all of our abiltities. We might not be teachers but we have enough intuition to know when a child (whether in our attention or not) is about to lose it, or we know how something is going to affect them. Most importantly, we keep all students safe and protected, physically and emotionally, as best we can. We are doing our best with the small amount of pay we receive and treatment we get from students. I have seen EPA’s take on teaching roles (and yes, I am aware that is far from their responsibilities) when substitutes are overwhelmed by the class that day. Above and beyond is our nature.

I realize I could be a waitress earning twice as much in tips, or even working at the mall. The work an EPA does doesn’t even reflect what we get paid. However, we do it. Like any job there are people who are just bad at it or not good. When you’re working with kids, especially high-needs children, there isn’t a lot of room for that. Sucking at your job could get you in a lot of trouble. So, many EPA’s don’t suck at their job. If they do, they don’t last long. A lot of them are just doing the best they can. When the government says that we could not keep our children safe it’s like saying the flight attendants wouldn’t try to keep passengers safe even when the whole plane is going down. They’re our kids too. It’s part of our job to do that, you can count on that.

Stand behind the teachers, no matter how long this takes. Somebody taught the Minister and somebody taught the Premier. Somebody had to teach you. There is a chance now for you to put your education into good use. Teach your children what you can about what is right and what is easy. Don’t hide the truth about things that will affect them. Their teachers love them and we love them too.

Now, excuse me while I go and try and figure out how to solve all of the weeks problems and make kids still feel the Christmas love even though some pretty Grinchy people have come pretty close to stealing it.

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