I never thought I would work in a classroom. Growing up with teachers as parents, many people used to ask me if I would also go into teaching, to which I would reply with a violent headshake. See, when you have parents who are teachers, you know how hard teaching is. You’ve heard the horror stories. You’ve also spent countless hours outside of school, inside another school, helping set up or rearrange classrooms, make endless copies and cut out several hundred feet of lamination. So when I found myself actually being paid to be in a classroom, I surprised everyone around me, not in the least myself.
I served two years in Albuquerque Public Schools as a first grade educational assistant. (For the uninitiated, an educational assistant assists the teacher in carrying out lesson plans, classroom organization and anything else the teacher needs help with.) Working with kids was just as hilarious as you would hope it to be. Over the two years, the kids made me laugh so many times, whether intentional or not. It never got old when I would be grading spelling tests and kids would come up with creative spellings for the words “deck” or “shut.” If you’ve never seen a group of five year olds doing push ups, I feel sorry for you, because it is amazing to see that kind of determination matched with such a lack of coordination. The same goes for jumping jacks. I loved doing fun activities with my kids, but they became even better when the result was hilarious. Taking kids out to skip laps on the track during the day is proven to help them read better and retain information because skipping helps the left and right brain communicate with each other. Watching your kids competitive skip is priceless.
The most rewarding part of working as an EA was definitely the kids themselves. Working at a school, I saw my students more than my family. It’s important to create a good bond with them. This is a job where kids will tell you that they love you several times a day and hug you for no reason other than they are glad to see you and are happy that you are there for them. I don’t think I went a day that year without at least one of my students coming up and hugging me. What was the last job you had where people told you they loved you every day? I was able to see my students learn and grow and it was a really amazing experience. I was there to high-five kids when they finally aced a spelling test that they studied hard for, or cheer them on when they learned how to skip, or revel in their reading fluency. You don’t get that kind of reward in other jobs. Quite simply, I loved those snot-nosed monsters.
Dickens said it best: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” He was talking about teaching when he wrote that, right?
Unfortunately, educational assistants are underappreciated. Not so much by the teachers, but by the whole system in place. The pay is so low for the responsibility and how much EAs are asked to do. On the other hand, my job was a walk in the park compared to what special education EAs are required to do. Having worked at a school that had a large special needs population, I witnessed firsthand the incredible work the special education EAs did and was amazed at how gracefully they handled it all. They work everyday with students whose bad days look a lot different than yours or mine, and I believe they really are the unsung heroes of the education system.
Being an EA is not for the faint of heart. The work, though at times rewarding, could be frustrating. There were days where all I felt like I did was try to get kids to listen, walk quietly in a line and for the love of God stop tattling on each other. Because I spent so much time with my students, I learned a great deal about their lives. When one student was affected by loss, the whole classroom felt it. I also became privy to the home lives of my students, and some of them broke my heart. Of course, the hardest parts were when I knew that a student was struggling, and the system took months to process paperwork, so in the meantime the student slipped through the cracks and there was not much I could do about it.
I would also be remiss to not mention the special partnership I formed with the teachers I worked with. I was lucky enough to work with two incredible educators who trusted me and respected me. An EA is supposed to become an extension of the teacher, and working so closely with those individuals, we really did become in sync. The classroom, the students and my experience would not have been what it was without the amazing teachers I was honored to work beside.
So how to sum up my experiences when every day was filled with such highs and lows, academically and emotionally? In the end, Dickens said it best: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” He was talking about teaching when he wrote that, right?