Abinet Cherinet, B.A., M.Ed., CHRP
Human Resources (HR) Organizational Analyst
Rocky View Schools (RVS)
Syrena Oswald, Certified Alberta Teacher
Mental Health Teacher, B.A., B.E.d.,M.Ed.
Calgary Board of Education (CBE)
The introduction of the Alberta Education Inclusive Policy in 2010 has transformed the competencies required for professionals who support students with exceptionalities. This study focuses on the challenges with roles, qualifications, and professional learning faced by educational assistants (EAs). EAs provide critical care to students with exceptionalities, while working collaboratively with teachers, learning support teams, and school administrators. Based on a literature review, as well as professional reflections by the authors, the study offers recommendations to improve the work and learning conditions for EAs. The study also provides insights regarding effective collaborative practices between EAs and other educators, to successfully support students with exceptionalities.
Educational assistants (EAs) play an integral and complex role as they work collaboratively with teachers, learning support teams, and school administrators to provide essential care for students with mild to severe inclusive education needs. This study presents challenges with roles, qualifications, and professional learning faced by EAs, and recommendations to improve the work and learning conditions for EAs. Although various school jurisdictions use different job titles including classroom assistants, learning assistants, learning resource assistants, learning resource special needs, paraeducators, paraprofessionals, special needs assistants, and teacher aides to describe staff who support students with exceptionalities, this group will be referred to as educational assistants (EAs)throughout this document.
The researchers for the study were a certified Human Resources (HR) professional with eight years of HR experience in educational settings and a teacher who works in the context of regular and specialized classrooms. Our inquiry was informed through a literature review, as well as our professional reflections from working with EAs from HR and teaching perspectives. Due to the anecdotal information we obtained regarding the working conditions of EAs, we were mindful of confidentiality and our assumptions that potentially influenced the process and outcome of the study.
The purpose of our study was to accomplish the following goals: a) inform educators and policy makers regarding the workplace challenges faced by EAs; b) provide recommendations that could improve the work and learning conditions of EAs; and, c) suggest ways to promote effective collaborative practices between EAs and other educators.
Overview of Inclusive Education
Inclusive education is not simply about adopting procedures and policies: it demands a new “way of thinking and acting that demonstrates universal acceptance of, and belonging for all students” (Alberta Education, 2011, p. 2). As per the Salamanca Statement adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (1994), learning should “be adapted to the needs of the child rather than the child fitted to preordained assumptions regarding the pace and nature of the learning process” (p. 7). This paradigm shift has manifested throughout a number of countries in the world including Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the United States. Countries such as Finland and the Canadian province of Alberta have followed similar paths “from segregated environments to more inclusive settings" (Jahnukainen , 2011, p. 493).
In June 2010, the Government of Alberta accepted the proposed strategic directions towards inclusive education (Alberta Education, 2011, p.2), which transformed how school divisions within Alberta support students with exceptionalities. In statistical information provided by Alberta Education (n.d.), the total number of students with mild, moderate, gifted, and severe learning needs in schools within Alberta has grown each year, from the 2010/2011 to the 2014/2015 school years. Such statistics suggest a need for highly qualified EAs to effectively manage the volume of students with exceptionalities, and the complexities of the educational needs of these students.
Literature Review: Workplace Challenges Faced by EAs
The role of EAs involves working collaboratively with teachers to “enrich the educational program by helping students gain the knowledge and skills they need to function in the classroom, the school and the larger community” (The Alberta Teachers’ Association [ATA], 2000, p. 2). In many circumstances, EAs are the primary providers of essential care to students with exceptionalities, and their roles are critical in assisting other educators to achieve the goals of inclusive education practices (Carter & Hughes, 2006, p. 175; Tillery, Werts, Roark & Harris, 2003, p. 118). For over 40 years, EAs have encountered challenges surrounding low pay; unclear roles; lack of supervision; insufficient job-training; limited career advancement; and their own perceptions that their contributions are not valued or respected (Giangreco, 2013). In this study, we investigated challenges pertaining to qualifications, roles, and professional learning.
Challenges Related to Qualifications
Dew-Hughes, Brayton, & Blandford (1998) highlighted challenges with the lack of provincially and nationally recognized education programs, standardized qualifications, and consistent pay scale for EAs (p. 180). Based on our experiences of working with EAs, and a review of a number of EA certificate programs offered within Alberta, there are still no provincially recognized qualifications for EAs, and programs vary significantly in terms of the required coursework and practicum experience. As a result, individuals who attend the EA certificate programs acquire different qualifications and practicum experience, which means that graduates of EA programs bring a wide range of knowledge and skill-levels to the workplace.
Challenges Related to Roles
As noted by the ATA (2000), the presence of both assistants and teachers in inclusive classroom has “raised questions about their [EAs’] role and its relation to that of teachers” (p. 1). In many instances, EAs are expected to assume duties outside the scope of their responsibilities which leads to role blurring, confusion, and frustration (Broadbent & Burgess, 2003, p. 3; Dew-Hughes et al., 1998, p. 179; Farrell, Balshaw & Polat, 1999, p. 28; Rutherford, 2011, p. 9). Roles, responsibilities, and expectations of EAs are often unclear because positions vary from school to school and student to student.
There are also ambiguous reporting relationships between EAs and classroom teachers, learning support teachers, and school administrators. EAs are typically guided by classroom and/or learning support teachers regarding their day-to-day responsibilities; however, school administrators complete their performance appraisals creating barriers for EAs to receive timely and meaningful performance feedback.
Challenges Related to Professional Learning
Based on our work experiences in multi-location organizations, we often observed that EAs working in isolated work environments were not aware of knowledge that would have informed them of best practices (Billet, 2006, p. 41). Additionally, the quality of learning at each location depended on the volume of workload, the degree of employee engagement, accessibility of learning resources, and supervisor support. Caroll (2001) indicated that EAs obtained limited on the job-training, and received minimal support to pursue continuous learning. Rutherford (2011) also noted that challenges with educating EAs, teachers, and school administrators pertained to “the development of a shared understanding of a range of legal, ethical, and professional practice” (p. 96).
Because standardized qualifications and professional learning for EAs are critical to successfully support students with exceptionalities, we offer the following recommendations.
EAs could benefit from provincially and nationally recognized professional certificate programs (Aird, 2000; Broadbent & Burgess, 2003; Dew-Hughes et al.; Farrell et al., 1999). This would establish a benchmark for academic and practicum experience required of EAs to work in inclusive education classrooms. We suggest that school divisions consider partnering with accredited post-secondary institutions to support provincially and/or nationally recognized programs for EAs. To achieve this goal, we believe a joint committee comprised of representatives from inclusive education, HR, and curriculum developers in post-secondary institutions is necessary. Members of this joint committee could explore ideas and best practices about the knowledge and practicum experience that would help EAs to effectively support students with exceptionalities. This could lead to further discussions about standardization of EAs’ qualifications provincially and nationally.
Clarity of Roles
To facilitate effective working relationships between EAs and teachers, “both parties [need to] understand their respective roles and responsibilities and feel free to discuss them openly on an ongoing basis” (ATA, 2000. p. 7). Giangreco (2010) also noted the roles of EAs can only be addressed after clarifying the “roles of teachers and special educators and the interplay between them” (p. 344). We suggest that HR work closely with EAs, teachers, and school administrators to establish clear job descriptions, performance expectations, and reasonable distribution of workload amongst EAs and members of the learning support teams. Inclusive education programs are effective if there is ongoing communication, regular meetings, and timely performance feedback (Carroll, 2001; Cross, Traub, Hutter-Pishgahi, & Shelton, 2004). It is also important that school divisions ensure equitable treatment of all staff regardless of their professional roles, by educating staff about business professionalism and respectful workplace practices.
Staff who provide care to students with exceptionalities “manage multiple domains of needs: socioemotional, behavioural and academic” (Roberts, 2014, p. 19). As such, we recommend school divisions to consider implementing formal professional learning programs to support the complexities of EA positions. These programs could be designed with input from EAs and teachers, because they can provide a firsthand account of the challenges related to the care of students with exceptionalities. Moreover, EAs need support from their supervisors to attend professional learning opportunities, as they are often unable to take time away from their responsibilities in the classroom. We also suggest school leaders to initiate effective change management strategies prior to introducing new technologies, policies, and procedures. especially when these impact the quality of services provided to students.
EAs who work in rural settings could benefit from a certificate program similar to the course delivery model such as the Community-Based Bachelors of Education (BEd) launched by the University of Calgary in 2015. This unique program in Alberta involves a blended learning model that helps “students in rural and remote areas to remain in their communities for the majority of their program while still receiving excellent instruction and advisory support” (Werklund School of Education, n.d., para. 1).
Because a team approach to learning and collaborative effort will “lay the groundwork for more inclusive and caring communities" (Roberts, 2014, p. 21), EAs and teachers could benefit from joint learning programs that involve learning support teams, post-secondary educational institutions, and professional associations (Carroll, 2001; Dew-Hughes et al., 1998). Moreover, EAs would benefit from a reflective learning approach that offers “opportunity to celebrate, comment on, and question their participation in service delivery" (Dover, 2005, p. 33).
We acknowledge limitations to our recommendations: role clarity does not guarantee collaborative practices between EAs and other educators. Personality differences, workload, and level of support from supervisors also influence collaborative practices. Although education sets the foundation for better performance, it might not prepare EAs for every unique scenario in supporting students with exceptionalities. Besides, even when school divisions implement effective professional learning strategies, EAs must assume responsibility for participating in the learning opportunities.
Conclusion and Implications for Future Research
The workplace challenges discussed in this document have highlighted the complexities associated with the role of EAs in supporting students with exceptionalities. As noted by the ATA (2000), “school boards that assign educational assistants to tasks for which they are inadequately trained or unqualified not only place students in danger but risk being sued for malpractice” (p. 4). When EAs are not adequately educated or fully qualified, the well-being of students might suffer. To mitigate these risks, teachers, learning support teams, school administrators, HR, and policy makers must develop effective professional learning strategies that support the goals of Alberta’s inclusive education programs.
In summary, the implications of this study are threefold: Firstly, the study offers insights into the legal and ethical considerations of the challenges faced by EAs and other professionals working in similar conditions. Secondly, the findings could lead to further conversations and research regarding effective collaborative practices amongst professionals in inclusive education classrooms. Finally, the study could contribute to the improvement of policy, best practices, and professional learning throughout the education system at large. Ultimately, any changes at the systemic level will require a collective effort by all stakeholders who are involved in inclusive education programs.
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Key words: Alberta Education Inclusive Policy, students with exceptionalities, educational assistants, roles, qualifications, professional learning, collaborative practice.