Barb Unrau: Educational Assistant - Local 145
"We identify the loners and encourage friendships, we strive to raise the students’ sense of self worth, pick up on if they are upset or potentially at-risk. In short, we tend to the students educational, emotional, relational, and physical well being."
While her two kids were in elementary school, Barb Unrau worked at a Subway so she could arrange her hours around the family’s busy schedule. When they got a little older, her husband suggested she pursue a career in the public school system.
“For years, I’d worked with kids through my church,” she says. “It was so rewarding making a difference in young peoples’ lives, but it had never occurred to me to make it a career.”
Nearly eleven years ago, after several months as a full-time Educational Assistant program student, she did just that -- and has never looked back.
“I truly look forward to coming into work every day,” she says.
There are eighteen EAs at Collège St. Norbert Collegiate, some of whom are assigned to a particular student who needs full-time assistance, while others, like Barb, deal with a dynamic list of high school students who are struggling in class for one reason or another.
“We’re a jack of all trades,” she laughs. “I have binders and binders on every high school subject. Which means though math and science are my forté, I sometimes end up helping students in areas that are not in my comfort zone. Which can be a really positive thing. I make sure the kids know that I struggle to learn certain things as well. English or Art are not easy for me and I can honestly tell them, if I can do it, you can do it.”
During the pandemic, keeping struggling students motivated online posed an even greater challenge, making an EAs role even more crucial. “We were the ones actively checking in on and connecting with those students most likely to disconnect. And it’s the little things that can make a big difference. For me, getting a wireless ear piece was a lifesaver, especially for math, because it allowed me to get up and use the whiteboard. Students learn in many ways, whatever works best for the children is what we need to be able to deliver for them.”
Having said that, Barb is quick to point out that the job is about much more than academics.
“What’s toughest is when you see potential in a student, but they just can’t see it themselves and they shut you out. In those cases, you sometimes have to set aside the academics and focus on building that relationship and trust.”
This commitment to standing up for others is also what drew Barb, who’s currently president of her Local, to taking on a role in the union. “I’m not really political and there was a huge learning curve, but I’m the kind of person who, if I see someone struggling or not being treated fairly, I want to help.”
In the end, she says being a good EA means investing not just your knowledge and time but also your heart.
“We identify the loners and encourage friendships, we strive to raise the students’ sense of self worth, pick up on if they are upset or potentially at-risk. In short, we tend to the students educational, emotional, relational, and physical well being. We do this job because we love children and want to see them be the best that they can be.”