“It’s frustrating to do such important work and barely be able to make rent”: Education workers like me are being stretched thin
I love being an EA, but I can’t make a difference when I’m running from class to class like a chicken with its head cut off
Caterina Divilio is an educational assistant (EA) in the Durham Catholic District School Board. She has been working with special needs children for six years, assisting students who require various academic, emotional and behavioural supports in the classroom. Here, she explains what a day in the life of an EA entails and how her job has changed in recent years.
—As told to Raizel Robin
I became an EA because I love working with special needs kids. I enjoy watching my students make progress and accomplish things. In my school board, EAs work for seven hours per day. I usually start the school day by prepping activities for the kids and meeting with my team to discuss what lies ahead. Then we move on to outside duties: supervising kids in the yard, helping with bus arrivals and getting special needs students into the school safely.
I work with kindergarteners. For example, I help a little boy with autism get into the classroom and make sure he’s ready to learn. I assist him in various ways so that he can participate in the activities the other students are doing. If they are on the carpet for an activity, he may not be able to join them there because the environment is overstimulating, which could disrupt his learning and in turn cause him to disrupt the other students. With my support, he can complete the same activity in a chair.
Another big part of my job is “transitions,” which is education speak for when students are changing from one activity to another, like finishing math class and starting snack time. These kinds of transitions can be particularly challenging for special needs students, so they require extra attention. Throughout the day, students may also need help with using the bathroom or eating. I’m there to support the teacher too. The kindergarten classes I work with have 26 students. Some days, I work with everyone else in the class while the teacher gets one-on-one time with special needs students.
Ever since Covid hit, there have been more and more demands placed on EAs. I’ve been in the classroom throughout most of the pandemic. Since many special needs students weren’t able to follow online lessons, they returned to schools for in-person learning in September 2020, and EAs stayed with them. We worked with teachers, who were instructing virtually, to deliver lessons. It was extremely stressful; we were worried about our own safety as well as the safety of the kids.
The majority of the children I worked with couldn’t wear masks. They weren’t able to wash their hands properly. We also couldn’t expect them to keep socially distanced; they would often be sitting in our laps. We had to put in extra precautions to make sure that everyone stayed safe. I wore a mask, eye protection and a PPE gown each day to protect myself, my family and my students. Some of my co-workers contracted Covid from the children we were working with. Going into work was scary. Before the vaccines, some of my fellow EAs and I had conversations about writing our wills.
Staffing shortages have been a major issue since the pandemic began. These days, if an EA is away, the whole schedule gets scrambled. We often don’t have supply workers who are willing to cover for us. I’d estimate that, 60 per cent of the time, there is no replacement for someone who is away. That leaves fewer of us to do the same amount of work, putting extra strain on us all.
When I first started this job, I would be able to spend my whole morning in one classroom supporting one student. Lately, I have three or four different students in three different classrooms who I’m doing check-ins with. I’m often spending 15 or 20 minutes with a student as opposed to having an hour or two. Sometimes we have to switch around the students we care for because we need to prioritize the children who require the most support.
On top of all this, EAs are subjected to violence on a regular basis. Dealing with spitting, punching, kicking, hitting and lashing out is a part of working with special needs kids. This behaviour isn’t the children’s fault. But, because we don’t have enough staff or resources, it’s harder for us to de-escalate these violent incidents before someone gets hurt. I’ve seen co-workers sent to the hospital with broken bones.
A major reason for the staffing shortages is the low pay. People often assume that EAs and other education support workers make teachers’ salaries. That couldn’t be further from the truth. My annual income is about $40,000 per year, which includes employment insurance payments that I collect during the summer since there’s no work. My monthly take-home pay after taxes and pension contributions is $2,200. My rent is $2,350. My husband works in construction, and he’s the only reason I can continue to do this job and keep paying the bills. I hear co-workers talking about how they could make more money working at Costco. They don’t know how much longer they can afford to stay in their jobs. I’ve thought about leaving too. It’s frustrating to do such meaningful and important work and barely be able to make rent.
After the pandemic, the last thing I want is for my students to be affected by more disruption and lost learning time. These kinds of changes are particularly challenging for children with special needs. I’m a parent myself, and I realize that a strike will further interrupt students’ routines. But the current conditions in classrooms are themselves a disruption. My son, who has ADHD, receives EA coverage in his school. I want nothing more than for him to be in class and learning properly. But I also know that he’s not getting the support he needs—his school administration has told me that they don’t have enough EAs to go around. At the end of the day, that puts his education on the line.
I love being an EA, but recently, I feel like I can’t make a difference because I’m running from class to class like a chicken with its head cut off. Skilled people who do vital work and enjoy it are leaving the field because they can’t afford to continue living this way. We are stretched thin—and that’s affecting students too. When will we start valuing education workers as much as we value our children’s educations?