In B.C. like much of the world, education assistants (EAs) perform a multitude of tasks during their workday and with increasing regularity are in “direct pedagogical roles” supporting students in classrooms and schools. There are currently ~13,000 EAs in B.C., with pre- Covid plans to hire an additional 1,000, making them the second largest educational employee group in the province. In previous years, EAs primarily supported students with “disabilities and diverse abilities”, but with policy changes the majority of EAs now support whole classes. This means EAs’ time and resources are now shared among all students in the classroom.
Like teachers, EAs are governed by the B.C. School Act. However, unlike teachers or even early childhood educators, EAs – referred to as teaching assistants in the School Act – require no relevant education, qualification or certification beyond a high school diploma. In fact, according to the School Act, school districts and boards determine the qualification requirements of EAs. This practice means some districts and boards only hire EAs from recognized post-secondary programs, while others, particularly those with significant recruitment challenges, will either create their own short-term EA training programs, or hire EAs without any recognized credentials. In their 2008 survey of 4,000 EAs, CUPE BC found that less than half (47%) of EAs had any recognized credentials. With no standards of practice governing the second largest educational employee group in B.C., almost anyone can be “pulled in off of the street” to be an EA.
EA training and education programs vary in content as lengths range from 25 hours in Manitoba and two weeks to one to two years in B.C. Short EA training programs, referred to by some as “training traps”, contribute to alarming educational inequities across the province as the outcomes of these programs impact the ability of EAs to deliver equitable support to all students. This is why EA standards of practice governing their practice need to be adopted.
The call for EA standards is not a new request. In 2012, Nancy Hoyano, Sylvia Woodyard and Diane Koch released their White Paper: Call for Standards of Practice for Education Assistants in B.C., in which they implored the government of the day to implement EA standards of practice based on a growing body of international research identifying significant challenges in the way EAs are educated and trained. More recently, the five-year Deployment and Impact of Support Staff project – the largest research study of EAs to date – unequivocally found that that while EAs can have a positive effect supporting students and teachers, with their increasing pedagogical role supporting all students, more, not less training and education is needed.
Historical and emerging research findings indicate that EAs are undertrained and underprepared for the realities of the ever-increasing complexities they encounter in their work. This begs the question why training and qualifications standards remain so low. Can an EA attending a two-week training program provide the same level of skill and knowledge as an EA with one or two years of education?
Policies regarding the education and training of EAs, how they are utilized in schools and classrooms and their increasing pedagogical role supporting all students have happened in a vacuum, outside of public view and scrutiny. School district and boards facing recruitment challenges may think that reducing the education and training programs will solve the problem, but again, research shows us that EAs often leave their work because they did not fully understand responsibilities of the job and had little if any prior experience.
Standards of practice guide and inform education and training programs ensuring potential graduates have the necessary training. They also help inform human resource practices, leverage research to identify best-practices and set job requirements so potential applicants fully understand their responsibilities, which leads to better retention.
EAs have been referred to as the “glue that holds everything together” and the “bricks and mortar” of schools. But the considerable inconsistency in their education, training and qualifications has only exacerbated educational inequities across classrooms and schools, districts and boards, and the province through no fault of well intentioned EAs. Addressing this gap, using standards of practice as a starting point, will ensure that all of our children receive the best education we can provide and that we keep our support staff safe and thriving.
Ryan Kappmeier, MAEd has dedicated over fifteen years of his career to working with marginalized and diverse learners in education and youth justice systems in B.C. and Ontario. Leveraging experiential learning tools and positive behaviour interventions, Ryan has supported a variety of educational programs including outdoor adventure therapy, day treatment, and traditional elementary and high school classrooms. He holds a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and Management from Royal Roads University, where he focused on a re-envisioning of the role that education assistants can play in improving outcomes for underserved learners in B.C