Tria Donaldson CUPE Staff
Aline Patcheva | CUPE Staff

Karla Sastaunik is president of CUPE 4784 and co-chair of CUPE’s National Women’s Committee. She is also an Educational Assistant (EA) in a K-12 school at Good Spirit School Division in Saskatchewan.

She is passionate to work with all students, and more specifically with students with special needs, who require supplemental learning supports, or who are newcomers to Canada. She is a proud advocate for students, and she is determined to fight for an improved education system in Saskatchewan.

Question 1

How did you become an Educational Assistant (EA) and what do you love about the work you do? 

Growing up, I was inspired by my dad who was a teacher and vice-principal, he was very involved in the community, and he still is today, at 75. He raised us telling us to be part of the solution. When I was 13, I started babysitting for a child born with disabilities. I always knew that I wanted to work with children with disabilities. After graduation, I became certified as an EA and I was thrilled to work in my community. 

I love the magic that happens when kids love something new or understand something for the first time. It could be something like tying their shoes or learning to solve a math problem. EAs build a different relationship with these students than teaching staff, and I feel blessed to be part of their lives.

Question 2

Why are education workers like you essential for students’ development and perseverance? 

Educational Assistants play a vital role in the education system. We provide intensive and unconditional support to students regardless of the circumstances, and sometimes we may be the only adult who advocates for them and sees them as they really are. Relationships that develop are special. We care about them like they are our own and make sure they have everything they need – be it personal care support, extra time to review a concept or work through an assignment, or even, for children with an immigrant background, help in learning to speak English.

Question 3

What were the challenges brought on by the pandemic in the past two years and how did you have to adapt? 

Many students have huge learning gaps as a result of the pandemic.

I work with children with intensive needs. They don’t easily use technology, and often have a hard time communicating online. Without face-to-face learning, we lost many of the gains that we had made. In some cases, without daily interventions, their speech or development regressed.

And many students are behind in math and English. It has been hard to get students back on track and there is not enough support staff to go around.

Question 4

How is your profession affected by years of conservative penny-pinching toward public education in Saskatchewan?

The cuts to funding in education in Saskatchewan are seriously impacting students. There are far less education support workers and teachers than there have ever been. I have been doing this work for 35 years and my schedule has been cut – from spending multiple hours per week with students in a specific class to sometimes only having minutes to try and accomplish the same goals.

EAs are also primarily women. Our wages are low, many of our members struggle to make ends meet and must work multiple jobs. It is especially hard for single parents.

This is not a school division issue – this is a provincial government issue.

While the Saskatchewan Party states it has improved and increased funding to divisions, it is all smoke and mirrors. Most school divisions are facing budgetary shortfalls and have had to make cuts. My division received a 0.83% increase, but inflation has risen exponentially. It is impossible to maintain the status quo within classrooms, and because of the reduction in services, students are not receiving the education they deserve.

Question 5

How is your local union fighting the cuts to funding and mobilizing citizens to support CUPE education workers?

At CUPE 4784, we work hard to get the public to understand what support workers do. But it is not easy to do this work in a conservative stronghold. Everyone in town knows how I vote; I try to make my opinion known and to educate people about what is at risk in the community.

It all starts with our members, and the people I work with. CUPE 4784 members participate in community outreach activities – swim nights, skate nights, student bursaries. We write letters to MLAs and lobby, and make sure our union work doesn’t alienate people. We have a good relationship with our employer, and as a result we meet with them and can work together to raise awareness on our issues.

Question 6

What is your greatest hope for the future? 

The path this government has taken in forcing financial restrictions on school divisions is not sustainable and is detrimental to every student and family in this province. The time to reinvest in education is now. We may not be able to change the government, but we can demand that they hear us and take action.

My goal as an EA and as a union activist is to make sure our public education system supports students, so that upon graduation they can have the skills they need to be successful and to find happiness wherever their future takes them – into a day program, the workforce, the trades, or university. I don’t do this for the money – though a raise would be nice. I do this for these young people, they are our future.