In Ontario, we’re facing an education crisis.
The decision has been made that fewer teachers, larger class sizes and fewer programs providing support for students is a good move for our province and, frankly, I am horrified. I simply cannot fathom how any of these things will benefit students, families or our communities in any way.
And when deep cuts are made to education, we lose educational assistants. This fact might scare me most of all.
Grade seven and eight were extraordinarily difficult years for one of my kids. At the time, my child was consumed with mental illness and I was constantly fighting and searching for the right help and appropriate treatment, yet I found nothing but walls and dead ends. My child was battling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and couldn’t handle the idea of attending school because of the germs that were there. There isn’t enough hand sanitizer in the world to convince someone with uncontrolled OCD that any public space is a safe place.
Every morning was a battle. It took two of us to get our child out of the house and into the car and then once I pulled into the parking lot of the school I was faced with getting them inside. Thankfully, our school had an educational assistant assigned to one room in the school which was open to any student that needed a quiet space or someone to talk to. I would park and then call into the school. The educational assistant would come out, and she would guide our child into the school safely and without embarrassment. She would keep in touch with me throughout the day, letting me know how our child was doing. She wrote letters for therapists which were instrumental in bumping us to the top of waiting lists for treatment.
She hugged me while I cried tears of despair on more than one occasion. She was our child’s safe place—their security in a world that had become unmanageable for them. I can say with absolute certainty that she was one of the main reasons we didn’t lose our child during that time. She is the reason we had the opportunity to enjoy grade eight graduation like any other family. My heart fills with gratitude anytime I think of her. We owe her—an educational assistant—so much.
That room no longer exists for all students in our school. Now, this same educational assistant is assigned to one child instead of being available to help many. In a time where society is so concerned with and focused on mental health, we lost an entire room and team devoted to the mental and emotional well-being of students to budget cuts.
And it’s about to get worse.
Our youngest child is late for school pretty much every morning. Our other children get on the bus, but she has issues with transitions and struggles to leave me in order to get on herself. We have tried everything, but she seems to need that time in the van with mommy in the morning on the way to school in order to manage her feelings around going. I don’t mind. Luckily she is still in kindergarten. Since we are always running late, we tend to arrive at the same time as another student who also struggles to attend school.
However, this student’s struggles are extreme and heartbreaking. I don’t know their diagnosis and I won’t guess, but what I do know is that every morning I watch the educational assistants in our school help this child. They endure insults and possible injury with kind words and soft voices because they know this child can’t help it. I have watched them literally run into traffic with no thought whatsoever for their own personal safety because it’s their job to keep this child safe. Does your job require that you run into traffic? Neither does mine. If they aren’t there to do it, who will? Who will keep the children who struggle safe? It can’t be left to the teacher already trying to manage a class of forty-five students.
Educational assistants are essential to a functioning school environment and to the wellbeing of the children in our communities. They know how many foster homes a child has lived in. They know if a child has food at home, or comes to school hungry. They know if a child has a learning disability or if something deeper is going on. They’re the reason a child who could barely read can suddenly keep up with their peers. They’re the reason that a child finally feels heard and understood. They’re the reason a child who wouldn’t have been able to sit in a traditional classroom is able to and finally has the chance to feel included and part of something. They’re the reason that so many parents, like myself, can breathe a little easier. And they’re the reason why teachers are able to focus on teaching the rest of their students.
There are many students who suffer from extreme behavioural issues and I have spoken with educational assistants who have received bloody noses, black eyes and concussions while on the job. I have seen educational assistants with their heads in their hands in a quiet corner of the school trying to regroup. Trying to find the emotional and physical strength to get through the rest of their day. Someone has to be there for those children, and they are. Every single day they show up for those kids.
It isn’t simply important to preserve the jobs of our educational assistants. It is absolutely vital.
Who will support our children and help keep order in our ridiculously large classes if they aren’t there?
Who will run into traffic to protect them?
Who will help the lost children find themselves?
No one will. And we need to remember that.