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Why I Left Public Education

I spent 21 years in Hamilton schools. Drastic budget cuts and a rise in violence caused me to leave that world for good.

April 15, 2024

I started as an educational assistant, or EA, in Hamilton in 2002, when I was 29. I’d always liked helping people. My cousin was born with profound disabilities, and I cared for her a lot when I was young. Then in high school I volunteered to assist students in the special needs classes—helping them eat lunch, for instance.

I studied behavioural sciences in college and just fell in love with it. (I ended up later having three special needs children of my own, so in a way my experiences also trained me to raise them.) After graduating, I worked in a preschool for children with autism. I liked it but I often worked after hours or on the weekends, which was hard once I had kids, so I soon applied to the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board to have more regular hours. 

My first placement was in a Grade 4 classroom, where I worked with a student on the autism spectrum, helping him stay on task. At that point, the classes were small and there were many EAs; if anyone was sick, it was easy to call in a supply EA to replace them. There were enough of us that we could work one-on-one with special needs students. I followed this boy through the years to Grade 8, before he moved on to high school. 

After that, I moved to a kindergarten room. By then, there had been major budget cuts, so EAs had to work with multiple children at once. I was tasked with helping two students who needed one-on-one support—and on top of that, there were a few students in that class who were behind in their development but who hadn’t been flagged when they came in. All day long, I was pulled in different directions. One of the students used to crawl under his desk constantly, and I would have to get him out. Another one was a runner and would just take off. If he wasn’t doing that, he was hitting and biting me or other students. I’d end each day exhausted.

I requested a transfer for the next year and was moved to a high school. I was in a self-contained classroom of 12 students, all of whom had learning disabilities but whose behaviours weren’t as severe. These are called self-contained classrooms because students stay there the whole day, and the education is more focused on life skills. They learn to read and do math but also how to cook and take care of themselves. At that time, there were separate self-contained classrooms for students with developmental disabilities—who typically had more behavioural challenges—and others who were learning disabled. But after more funding cuts, students ended up in any self-contained classroom with a spot, no matter their diagnosis.

With fewer and fewer EAs as the years went by, my work became harder—and I suffered more physical injuries. One time, an autistic student who wanted something I had in my hand put me into a headlock and shook me so hard I got whiplash. He didn’t mean to hurt me; he just couldn’t communicate his needs. There was a student who had pica—a condition where you try to put anything you can get a hold of into your mouth, even if it’s not edible. We used to chase him down the hall before he drank cleaners or ate garbage off the ground. When you’re trying to stop students like this and hold them back, it can become really dangerous.

Around 2017, things got even worse at that school. I saw more conflicts everywhere—in the classroom, in the hallways, outside in the schoolyard. At that time, school boards across Ontario were shutting down special needs services to deal with budget cuts. In Hamilton, they closed two vocational schools that helped students with profound learning disabilities acquire skills they would need to get a job in the trades. The school board said, “Don’t worry, we’re shutting these down but we’re going to put all the same supports into the regular high schools.” That never happened. Instead, these students were left without the supports they needed to keep up in their new classes. They ended up wandering the halls and getting into trouble. Overall, I felt that, instead of putting proper supports in place for these students—which would also keep us safe—the province expected staff to just suck it up and deal with it.

Then, in 2018, I got an injury that changed my life. That year, I was placed in a classroom with a student who needed two EAs with him all day. He was severely autistic and non-verbal, so he had no way of communicating except through his behaviour. He grabbed people and body checked them. Sometimes, two of us needed to take him to a quiet room, which had pads on the walls. 

But on one of the days we took him there, we got a call on our walkie-talkies about a crisis happening in another room. Since there weren’t enough of us to go around, the EA who was with me left to go help. Suddenly, the student decided he wanted to leave the room. He threw me up hard against a door—and the door handle went into my back. Over the years, I’d been bitten, hit, kicked and had my arm almost pulled out of its socket, but this injury was the worst. I sustained tissue damage and bulging discs and was bedridden for a long time. I had to take a leave in order to rehabilitate. 

After a year of physiotherapy and WSIB benefits, I needed to go back to work, even though I was still in pain. I was placed in another self-contained classroom, with a bunch of students with different needs all plunked together. I couldn’t help the ones with learning disabilities with schoolwork because I was dealing with the developmentally delayed students’ behaviour. That year, we did our best to get through each day without them killing each other. Often, we’d have to send someone home or evacuate the classroom to keep the rest of the students safe from a kid who was acting out. At that point, EAs were so burned out that many of us were taking many days off. There was no one to fill in for us, so we were often severely understaffed. We’d been screaming for years for the funding to hire more staff, which would allow us to do our jobs, but our pleas fell on deaf ears. 

By 2022, after COVID, many children hadn’t been to school regularly for two years. They’d missed much of grades 7 and 8, and suddenly they were in high school. There were behavioural issues among all the students, not just the ones with special needs. They weren’t going to class. They brought water guns and Nerf pellet guns to school. They vandalized walls, threw toilet paper out the windows and set garbage on fire. That year, violent incidents reported by school staff in Hamilton doubled from the year before. 

We were all on edge, wondering what each day would bring. There was always at least one EA off because of the stress, which put more pressure on whoever did show up. I thought about quitting all the time. We all did. Sometimes it felt like EAs were getting paid $25 an hour to put our lives on the line. We do what we do because we love the children, but there’s a line where enough is enough. Those of us who had been there a long time would try to stick it out. We had seniority, a pension and were nearing retirement, and the people we work with are like family. But young people who come into the job do not stay for long. They see what’s going on and say, “Nope, I’m not doing this.”

In the end, I finally left my job at the end of the last school year. My eldest son got beaten up so badly I decided to take him out of school before he finished high school. We didn’t want our other son, who’s now in Grade 8, to go through that. He has an intellectual disability and, because of the cuts to special needs supports, would’ve been on a long waitlist for a self-contained classroom. In a mainstream classroom in Hamilton, he would have been eaten alive. I was terrified. I had worked as an educational assistant in Hamilton for more than 20 years and figured I would finish my career here—but I had to put my family first. 

We sold our house that summer and moved to my husband’s hometown of Amherstburg, which is about 20 minutes from Windsor. Here, my son goes to a Catholic school and is well supported. Catholic schools don’t have self-contained classrooms—their philosophy is that every child belongs with their peers, regardless of ability—but as a result they often have more EAs per classroom. When he goes to high school, he can be placed into a special program that’s similar to the vocational schools they used to have in Hamilton, which will help give him the everyday skills he’ll need to one day live on his own.

I got a job at St. Clair College in Windsor as a support learning facilitator for their Community Integration program. There, I help adults with developmental disabilities, modifying the regular curriculum to help them be as successful as their neurotypical peers. I also take notes for them and help them do their schoolwork. The job is essentially the same as what I used to do, but since it’s in a private school, I don’t have students with severe behavioural challenges.

I’ve been hired as a supply EA for both of the local school boards, but I’ve only worked four shifts. I wish that could still be my passion, but every time I step into a school, I’m reminded that, after all the cuts, it’s no longer what I signed up for in 2002. It’s not about sitting down with students one-on-one and helping them do math problems anymore. And it’s really sad that the thing I used to love is just gone. 

I want everyone to know what’s happening in our schools. If every parent had a sense of what was going on, they would be horrified. They would want to do something about it. And if enough people push for change, I’m hoping things can turn around.