Who Are Educational Assistants?

Educational assistants constitute part of what, in the education community, is known as support staff, a term designating personnel who help teachers carry out the educational mission of the school and who make the educational experiences of children more rewarding. Some support staff are highly qualified professionals who provide such specialized services to students as diagnostic testing, speech therapy and physical therapy. Others have non-professional credentials earned through college studies. Still others have no post-secondary qualifications at all. The duties that support staff are assigned depend on their qualifications and competencies and on the provisions of the School Act and other legislation.

Typical Duties of Educational Assistants

Under the direction of a teacher, support staff may work directly with students individually or in small groups to deliver activities that reinforce and advance the educational program. They also provide teachers with advice and suggestions. For example, they may assess how well students are functioning, administer standardized tests (but not make judgments on test results), observe and document behaviours as students participate in learning activities and, where appropriate, help plan the educational program. Together with teachers, educational assistants 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.

In making decisions about the educational program, teachers count on input from other professionals, parents and classroom-based educational assistants. Professionals such as psychologists, speech therapists and physical therapists draw on their expertise to provide teachers with specialized reports and suggestions about particular students. Teachers use this input to develop and implement educational programs for which they are ultimately responsible.

There is no definitive list of the duties that support staff are expected to carry out. Instead, their duties are determined by such factors as their qualifications, the needs of the students and the information required by the teacher. The following scenarios illustrate some of the ways in which teachers may draw upon the advice of support staff to modify the educational program.

Scenario 1: A physical therapist reports that a student is unable to raise his arm above his head without hurting himself. The teacher asks the therapist to suggest activities that the student can carry out safely. Using the therapist’s advice, the student’s physical education teacher modifies the unit on basketball to incorporate drills and exercises that the student can perform safely and that meet the objectives of the curriculum.

Scenario 2: A psychologist reports that a student has difficulty recalling information that is presented in visual form only. Upon receiving such a report, the student’s teacher modifies her style of instruction to ensure that all information is presented in more than one modality.

Scenario 3: An educational assistant reports that a student is having difficulty understanding classroom assignments. Drawing on the assistant’s observations, the teacher carries out some tests, diagnoses the problem and designs activities and exercises to meet the child’s learning needs.

A Question of Accountability

The primary responsibility for the educational program that students receive falls upon teachers, who are expected to maintain a high standard of conduct, care and instruction. These expectations are outlined in the Teaching Profession Act and in the School Act, excerpts from which can be found in Appendix 1. The high standards expected of teachers are also described in the Teaching Quality Standard (Ministerial Order #016/97), which states “Quality teaching occurs when the teacher’s ongoing analysis of the context, and the teacher’s decisions about which pedagogical knowledge and abilities to apply result in optimum learning by students.”

Section 117 of the School Act authorizes school boards to employ non-teaching employees, including educational assistants, to help teachers realize the educational mission of the school board. However, no legislation, not even the School Act, defines the duties and responsibilities of non-teaching employees and specifies to whom they are accountable. Although their duties are not defined in legislation, educational assistants nevertheless are accountable, as this publication will attempt to demonstrate.

Who Assigns Duties to Support Staff?

In general, teachers are responsible for assigning duties to support staff. For example, external professional staff such as psychologists, physiotherapists and nurses who test students and provide other specialized services to meet their individual needs should do so in consultation with teachers and at the teacher’s request. Similarly, educational assistants who work directly with students are supervised by the teacher to whom they are assigned. However, some assistants, especially those who provide medical, hygienic or welfare-related services that enable students to access the education system, may also report to a person other than the classroom teacher. An assistant who is responsible both for attending to students’ medical needs and for helping a teacher in the classroom may report to two people. In some cases, such an assistant might report to two teachers, one for each aspect of his or her assignment. In other cases, an assistant might report to a teacher and to a health-care professional such as a nurse or therapist.

Over the years, the Association has adopted a number of policies on the role of educational assistants. These policies, which are listed in Appendix 2, specify, among other matters, that

  • a teacher should be assigned an assistant only if the teacher so requests,
  • assistants are responsible to the teachers to whom they are assigned,
  • the supervising teacher is responsible for determining the assistant’s specific duties, and
  • the tasks that a teacher assigns to an assistant should not include duties for which the teacher is professionally responsible, such as diagnosing learning needs, prescribing educational programs and evaluating student progress.

All members of support staff should have a written role description that specifies their general duties, establishes to whom they are accountable and sets out what is expected of them in terms of conduct.

The respective duties of teachers and educational assistants are further elaborated in the ATA’s Position Paper on Educational Assistants, which is reproduced in Appendix 3. The position paper emphasizes that educational assistants are deployed most effectively when their duties are assigned by classroom teachers rather than by personnel external to the classroom.

Following are two scenarios. The first describes a situation in which an educational assistant is deployed effectively. The second describes a situation in which the working relationship between the educational assistant and the classroom teacher is flawed.

Scenario 1: A Grade 5 class includes four special needs students, one of whom has Down’s syndrome. Under the supervision of the classroom teacher, an educational assistant works with these four students and, on occasion, with the other students. From time to time, the classroom teacher calls on the services of a special education teacher to help test the students and to suggest appropriate activities and resources. The classroom teacher retains the responsibility for developing the students’ individual program plans (IPPs) and for assigning duties to the assistant.

Analysis: This scenario illustrates the proper working relationship between a teacher and an educational assistant.

Scenario 2: A special education teacher is responsible for assigning assistants to all classrooms in a school containing special needs students and for determining the duties of those assistants. The individual classroom teachers continue to write the IPPs for the special needs students in their care.

Analysis: This approach is flawed because the person ultimately responsible for the outcome of the education program—the classroom teacher—is not responsible for assigning the duties of his or her assistant. Such an organizational structure may inhibit the classroom teacher’s ability to provide the best educational program for all students.

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