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 Jamie Pettit
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From: Wednesday, July 19, 2017 3:31 PM -0400
Subject:Educational Assistants Build Life Skills
An unyielding passion for the job, a rock solid sense of teamwork, and a family atmosphere are evident from the moment you enter the specialized learning unit at Grey Highlands Secondary School (GHSS) in Flesherton, where a dedicated group of educational assistants come to spend most of their day.  Two rooms in the unit, one to address individual student needs and the other for group work, provide an ideal setting that is conducive to daily learning activities that focus on building life skills for the school’s diverse contingent of students with special needs.  From chores such as cooking and laundry to an ongoing focus on hygiene that includes personal care and dress codes, the skills are varied to ensure students are well equipped regardless of where they end up post GHSS.  

Group photo image of GHSS educational assistants (L-R): Tracey Spires, , Rose McLaughlin, , , Krista McCormack; Absent: Julie Green, Vicki Watson, Diane Akitt, Danielle Watson, Jennifer SheridanInvolvement in several aspects of the school community is crucial.  For example, the students play a key role in the nutrition program, which involves handling the prep work, bagging and other necessary details so that food bowls are available for the entire GHSS population.

A myriad of other learning skills occur on a daily basis to prepare students for the world of tomorrow.  Technology is incorporated through the use of iPads to enhance communications for non-verbal students.  Cooperative education experiences are also available to assist the students with transitioning and integration into a work location.  The strong support of businesses and organizations within the Flesherton and Markdale communities has resulted in numerous jobs for former students in the restaurant business, long term care facilities, grocery stores, and at schools in a custodial capacity.              

“We have seven years to figure them out, build on their strengths, [and] help them work toward a goal,” says Rose McLaughlin, who is now in her twenty-second year as an educational assistant, 20 of which have been spent at GHSS.  “Small gains are a big deal,” she affirms in reference to the students’ multifaceted learning paths.  As change can be especially difficult for many of them, the teaching approach is focused on establishing routine and consistency while promoting independence.  For the most part, the students experience the same issues and challenges as the so-called “mainstream kids”, but just at a different level.  According to one of the GHSS educational assistants, “take out the ‘dis’ [and] they all have abilities.”  

The role of an educational assistant is critically important and often hard to define, as it requires an innate ability to wear many hats and be prepared to face a number of unique challenges simultaneously.  The vast level of experience and value that these staff members bring to some of the most vulnerable members of the student population cannot be overlooked.  This extends to multiple areas of health and safety.  At GHSS, the educational assistant team members work with students on exercises developed by physiotherapists to assist with health related issues.  There are also beneficial partnerships in place with community agencies, which come to the school to provide resources and training to assist with individual student needs.   

Helping to facilitate the work of the educational assistants is an overarching support network encapsulating all GHSS staff and students.  

“The whole staff is supportive.  It’s very much a team at GHSS,” says Krista McCormack, who has spent 19 years at the school in her role.  The “mainstream” student body also gets involved regularly as coop students and peer helpers work closely with the special needs students in a variety of meaningful ways when the need arises.  

The strength of the program and closely knit environment at GHSS can be attributed to this resilient group of educational assistants, many of whose impressive length of service in the same school location has resulted in consistency and left a profound mark of influence on daily learning.  Staff such as Wendy Stephens, who has served for 14 years at GHSS as an educational assistant, can attest to the power of longevity and the low turnover.  For some others who are more recent GHSS additions, such as Colleen Eidenmueller and Tracey Spires, they don’t fall far from the tree with a lot of their extensive experience gained at nearby Beavercrest Community School in Markdale.     

As for the ingredients of their continued success, the team is happy to share their own modest views:

“We look out for one another.”

“We value communication and respect each other.”  Each team member brings their own unique skill set to the table.  By focusing on independence for the students, they are able to support and educate parents and families during the many twists and turns of the learning journey.  The connections also extend beyond the school years as staff keep in touch with past students to monitor their transitions to the “real world”.     

The GHSS team is an open, friendly and loving group that believes in serving and celebrating others.  In the course of their work, the members never lose sight of another important key ingredient:  It is okay to have fun!  They are prime examples of the exceptional work performed by the many caring and committed educational assistants in Bluewater District School Board.